Dear GMs: Metagaming is YOUR Fault

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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.

Challenge Yourself

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.

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69 thoughts on “Dear GMs: Metagaming is YOUR Fault

  1. I am in agreement with you on this. ‘Metagaming’ does not ruin the game if it is being run properly. I even had to stop myself in my last game when I started yelling at a player for doing it. So what? The challenge should not be in the mystery of the monster or opponent, but the entire encounter.

    Your example of the various ways to alter the environment where the party has to fight a Troll perfectly explains how the GM can set things up so knowledge of the game and rules don’t matter.

    And playing with player secrets is just flat annoying, it reminds me of high school. One of my new favorite web shows is Acquisitions Inc. and in that game literally everything gets discussed at the table, regardless of whether a player’s character is even involved in the encounter. And the players are clearly having a good time despite the fact that it breaks every potential theatrical wall. And in the end, that is why we play: to have fun. And allowing players to go around being secretive and sneaky to each other is a great way to end someone’s enjoyment of the game.

    • The Acquisitions Inc. players also shrug it off or laugh along with the others when they see their characters get screwed, which is another side of the social contract/metagame. I personally struggle with this a lot when I play, and I can get really salty when the game is going badly for me. It’s something I’m trying to change in part because its childish and obnoxious, but also because any negative behavior that I engage in becomes more common/acceptable to the group as a whole; our behavior sets the metagame (and establishes the social contract) for each of our groups.

      • Well, in the end both ways of playing are valid.

        If you see your character as someone stuff happens to, you’re more going towards a play that can be similar to the experience FATE creates or tries to create. You’re not invested so much in the character’s fate but in the narrative that is created. And you might play a complete fool (in the sense of the Tarot card) and enjoy it utterly. But you don’t FATE to do that. You can have fun like with Dungeon Crawl Classics quite easily. All it requires is accepting that what you do is risky in D&D-likes and accept death and failure.

        But this is only one type of fun. You might become engaged with the funny stories such play can create. But you also don’t get as immersed into it. There’s a whole Ask Angry about it and I basically agree with it. There’s nothing wrong with being invested and immersed into your character, and there’s nothing wrong with laughing it of. It is best, however, to have a group basically agree on a style.

        Neither is more ideal or better than the other. They just create different experiences. And the grass is greener on the other side.

        • Def agree w/you, Kastellan,
          Is the game about light-funplay or narrative? What’s the mixture? 60/40? Then it would seem in most cases fun would/should win out over narrative to follow the -established/ing- tone of the game, but it shouldn’t win out everytime at a crossroads b/c then it will transition to 80/20 at some point… this is fine but then later might be corrected by the GM by falling in narratives favor for many instances of question consecutively.

          I tend to run more fun, but play more narrative… not always by choice. Anecdote: the problem of learning/gaining information as character can be a challenge in itself, sometimes by design, because otherwise the narrative is what’s broken, think of translating one theme into a different setting. This setting is now changing drastically because it is actually end times, and this has not happened before: lots of unknowns. Does that mean the apocalypse isn’t fun to play? Psh…. However, once the statement is made “your character doesn’t know that”, whether I overheard a “private” conversation between GM and fellow player – by accident – or some other reason for me not to know something that is justifiable in character terms (based on how the GM is running things), it becomes very difficult to recover from that: because, indeed with the court-room example: I think the phrase is “you cannot un-ring a bell.” You cannot unhear what you heard. you can try, but sometimes it keeps popping back up, or you are “thinking” around it, and your methods of gathering the info in game are therefore suspect by the GM, and thus detracting from the narrative in the end as questions of origin of knowledge can arise on the player level, again, and maybe again…

          mind you, my fav GM focuses on the narrative in this way, it’s just proven to be problematic sometimes and just illustrates a not unlikely by-product of narrative focused play, which is a challenging style of play anyway to unfold with 6 or more people with player knowledge of stats and levels and sanity and so on. I love to try to participate in this narrative however, -more- than trying to convince the GM that I should just “know it already” because I heard part of a discussion I wasn’t supposed to.

  2. This article feels timely to me – I’ve recently seen a lot of videos, etc., online advising that if you want to “challenge” your players, you should subvert their expectations of the challenges facing them – key example being changing a troll’s weaknesses from fire/acid to something else.

    The problems I see with this are twofold – first, it just turns finding the exploit into a game of chance or trial-and-error, as you pointed out. Second, and worse, the only “challenge” you’re creating out of this comes from the fact that you’re effectively (or literally) lying to the players. To extend your courtroom analogy, that’s like being on jury and having to render a verdict based on evidence for a completely different case.

    I could see this working in one circumstance: the players have encountered this challenge before, they know its weaknesses, and the DM makes a point of explaining how this seems clearly different from the ones they’ve encountered before, ideally in a way that points them toward the new exploit. Then it becomes a mini-puzzle, where the only thing they know for certain is that the old tactic WON’T work, but they have a lead toward finding a new solution.

    • my guess is angry would also point out that if you try to subvert the players expectations about the world you are pretty much ensuring their characters live in a random universe where any decision they make or action they take is meaningless. How could they base their decisions on anything but their expectations about the world, the challenges they face and the outcome of their actions?

      • I guess it would be along the lines of: A change never telegraphed and running counter to accepted world lore is just a gotcha to screw with players. Add expletives to desired extent. XD

    • What would you call “changing the trolls weaknesses”? Might that be ….dare I say it…metagaming perhaps?

    • I think it deppends howyou do it. An example: in Order of the Stick #991, we are told the history of one of the characters parentes. They were on a raid to slay a Mountain Troll that was causing trouble, so they gathered torches, flaming weapons etc. BUT the troll was a red half-dragon, this immune to fire.

      The difference, in this case, is that the change is not random. Also, it takes away one weakness (fire), But leaves the other, more uncommon (acid). Third, the change is visible, so if the party can stealth the creature, they can identify it as a red half-dtagon, this learnin that fire may be a bad idea

      • That still feels like a screwjob. If this troll has been terrorizing this village, then either the survivors of the attacks should be talking about a fire-breathing, bright red troll, or the people who discover and investigate the attack sights should be finding signs of fire.

        If I were playing in a game where we spent a lot of time equipping ourselves with fire weapons to attack what, to this point, we had gathered to be a regular troll, I would be righteously pissed off if it turned out that troll was a half-red dragon.

  3. Generally I have to yell at players for the opposite reason, they’ll insist that using their brains in any way is meta-gaming and will act very dumb in a bizarre attempt to “avoid metagaming” which as discussed is impossible.

    There is another side to the Troll scenario, where a DM might think the solution to meta-gaming is to invent some new monster, with some new ability that the players definitely won’t know about. But as stated, having players flounder around randomly to discover the properties of a monster is a non-challenge, un-fun screwjob.

    As it is known, all the hidden aspects of the world should be strongly hinted at by the DM so that players feel rewarded for figuring them out and are literally rewarded by overcoming challenges more efficiently, and to also ensure that such solutions are not strictly required lest the game come to a grinding halt.

    • Well, if that monster is central to the adventure and finding its weaknesses is possible, then that is actually quite fun. “Doom of the Savage Kings” is built around that, and it’s fun. It’s clear from the beginning that people need to figure something out here. And it becomes a fun mix of trial-and-error and investigation. It only devolves if players fall for all the red herrings in the adventure or refuse to accept any of the alternate solutions that seem risky at first.

      I personally avoid red herrings in any kind of mystery. Players invent enough of their own anyway and are usually not discerning enough to sort through more complicated mysteries anyway. Red herrings completely marred for me, also when playing myself, one of Pelgrane’s mysteries – “For the Love of Money” – it tries to be clever, but it just is a screw job, really, in many many ways.

      So, if you mix trial-and-error with ways to actually gain information in a different way, and if it is clear that is the purpose of the adventure, then it can be fair game.

    • Another really good option is just to make an encounter that is easy if they find the weakness, but not mandatory to find it.

      For instance, let’s say there’s a “troll” that has a weakness to cold damage (cold stops its metabolism and prevents it from regenerating for a round). The players start with what they think is the right answer (fire) and it doesn’t do any extra damage, but it does deal damage. The fightery players just switch to their mainstay weapons (greatsword instead of torch or something) and just bash at it. The spellcasters fish around looking for its weakness and don’t find it, and so the troll is a tough fight but the party wins, maybe spending a bit more resources than they should. Afterwards, they look up and find that the cold slows troll metabolism and they come into the next fight with a troll better prepared.

      If they spend too much time trying to figure out an encounter, players can screw themselves, sure, but as long as they still have a chance to win if they don’t figure out the trick, then it’s all good.

      On the other hand, you can absolutely make a story point where the BBEG can only be harmed by the magical holy avenger and there’s a big quest to get the holy avenger sword.

      • The other half of this is that you shouldn’t ever have the party fight a monster like this just once. You send them up against it the first time so that it’s tough, but then give them the option of doing the research, either in the dungeon or out of it, in order to find out more about the monster.

        Hmmm, that monster we just fought, didn’t the book we found say something about that? Lets read that section more carefully.

        Or you set it up so that there’s a major environmental hazard…

  4. This was cool, I liked it, you said “metagaing” at one point, and the design of the comment section for phones (I’m using an Android) is horrendous. Like, I can’t read it.

    • I am using an android as I type this answer and everything looks fine to me (I only ever read this blog on my android). So it’s probably your version or something?

    • I have the same problem, maybe it’s a browser issue. As far as the typo… This is angry we’re talking about. I doubt he has two fucks left to rub together

  5. “The problem is that a challenge that can be “broken” by a specific piece of information is a poorly designed challenge.”

    There exist plenty of campaigns, mystery ones especially, where a single piece of information can break things horribly. And not all ways of obtaining that information make the game fun (e.g. someone else who has run the same adventure path before tells your current player the answer, one of the more extreme examples admittedly). And players should absolutely be majorly discouraged from looking for this information like that.

    It felt like a major part of Angry’s argument against the “a****** GM metagaming” was that it was a screwjob with no good way to find the information otherwise. And that’s true for the super simplistic Troll-with-no-context example. But figuring things out is fun. And a lot of campaigns do include fun ways to find the answers to various information-challenges. And to categorically say that any challenge that relies on information is bad, rules out a *lot* of gaming that a lot of people like.

    It’s not a small exception where external circumstantial information can make the game that much less interesting.

    That said, yeah I could really go for people to stop whining about playing intelligently being metagaming. The PCs are trained warriors, they

    • I don’t think Angry said anything like this: “And to categorically say that any challenge that relies on information is bad, rules out a *lot* of gaming that a lot of people like.” That’s the equivalent of a strawman argument – where you argue against something that was probably either not actually said by the actual person, but conceptualized by yourself from how you understood what you said. So it is essentially an underlying misunderstanding.

      He never said there should be no secrets in the game. But he did argue that player secrets are almost always bad. He did not argue against information hiding for adventure building because every module that has any kind of story or twist and not just three goblin encounters in a row usually has some extent of information hiding and fog of war. He just argued that if players immediately guess the hidden information then that was weak adventure building.

      Similarly, somebody sharing info about the game like that? That could lead to metagaming. But it basically comes under the heading of cheating. And if somebody tells you the solution to the big bad mystery and spoilers you you probably should kick him in the nuts and then go to your GM and be upfront about it. Because this will break the game in the worst way.

      Angry has been very specific which challenge types are not fun by simple information hiding. And this is usually true for the “gotcha monster” trivialized by its weakness. It’s not fun when you don’t have the information, and it’s bad form to not let the players enjoy their “cleverness” when they do have the information. It’s by itself just uninteresting.

      Nothing wrong with finding out information and telegraphing information to players who pay attention. Aren’t at least two paragraphs of every Angry article about that?

  6. A better Greek example than the sphinx is the second labour of Hercules, where he fought the hydra. Every time he cut off a head, two more would grow back. His nephew cam up with the idea of cauterizing the wounds to prevent this.

    Since every Greek citizen after, say, 700 BCE was likely aware of this story, every Greek citizen would know what to do if they ran into a hydra, and would probably figure it out pretty quickly if they encountered a D&D troll.

    • Amusingly, every Greek citizen would also know that the Hydra’s blood was deadly poisonous (arrows dipped in the Hydra’s blood were used at Troy by the archer Paris to kill Achilles; hitting his Heel didn’t trigger critical existence failure, it was just the entry point for a lethal toxin). This aspect of the Hydra’s powers did not cross over to D&D, a fact that led to a rather amusing scene in an old campaign I played in which was run by a friend of mine who studied Greek myth and which had a mix of players new and old to D&D. The new player was concerned about wading into melee with a poisonous monster, the old players didn’t know where that information was coming from.

      Turns out, as telegraphed earlier in the campaign, A) Monsters were different in that campaign world, and B) That DM severely underestimated the effectiveness of poison when giving it to homebrew monsters.

  7. It’s strange to read all this argument without the actual mention of the role-playing aspect of the game. I mean sure, you as a player may know that it’s a troll and should be killed by fire. But is it the DM’s job, to decide if your character knows about this weakness or the player’s? What does the player wants to play? I have players, who metagame all the time and those players, who enjoy playing their characters, whatever the game / system / world we play in actually. (Well, metagaming in DnD is easier, but for example, Call of Cthulhu is a close second, but the enjoyment of the two games are not ruined by the same metagaming attitude, probably because different players play those games.) How can be metagaming (or anything) be all the DM’s fault in a game, where four-five other people bring their attitude, expectations and previous experiences to the table as well? You can ruin a real-life social situation by “metagaming”, despite the fact, that there’s no dungeon master creating the plot and encounters for you…

    • I think Angry is just over-the-top trolling us to make a point… Because then it sticks. 😉

      He does have a valid point about problematic GM behaviors… if he starts a series about problematic player behaviors beyond his usual anti-player ranting, he will never run out of material for years to come. XD

  8. “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.”

    This is gold.

    It happened to me. When giving the quest the players extracted several clues and through another player I learned that this was enough for one player to break the code of the initial situation. But that was actually good because I thought really hard about the interacting layers for the story and made me write a better adventure without invalidating anything they already knew. And I metagamed, of course. I knew they were coming with preconceived notions and bias to the situation, and now I was introducing elements confirming their bias and elements contradicting their bias because there were two interacting elements in the story and they knew only one.

    At some point they decided that their initial idea about the story isn’t the whole story (correct) and set out with all the additional clues to resolve the problem and then learned what the whole story was. Their minds were blown, they had a very good time, and they did not feel invalidated for their initial metagaming cleverness, either. The seeds were laid in the original adventure were there was something that wasn’t what it seemed to be. They just figured that out too quickly. So they encountered something that was what it seemed to be and had time to modify their assessment of the situation. I metagamed vs their metagame and I think it was all for the better.

  9. As for the metagame problems arising from unshared secrets…

    I’ve taken the past advice of simply assuming that a party of combat-trained characters has a knowledge pool exceeding their immediate experience. It has reduced problems at the table massively. The advice simply worked so in my view it was simply good advice.

    I also took the advice on secrets and when I had a player that absolutely wanted to play a changeling I made it clear from the beginning that the other players should know. Nobody had a problem with it on character creation and now I weave it into the story and we actually have a nice cliffhanger and character moment where the changeling turns towards the rest of the party and says “I have to tell you something…” Simply because else she cannot share the information she wants. But it has created an interesting dilemma, and it will change how characters in game see her. And if anybody now wants to be an asshole in game about it I will go out of game and call them an asshole and remind them that they basically agreed to this and should not rationalize their way now into acting like an asshole.

    Most metagaming on my table erupts through people messing with other people by not sharing info intentionally or fully or early – the PvP metagaming mentioned in the article. When somebody does try to act on knowledge they don’t have like because the party is split and I chose to treat them like adults and not send them out of the room, that is when I do have a problem. Because I don’t like it when players cannot simply abide by the contract that “you can watch a scene for your enjoyment that you are not party to under the condition you will play within reasonable bounds of the metagame after.” The unspoken part is that I will try not to be an asshole about it and not doom one part of a group to bad decisions that they could avoid by metagaming. And I do get angry when somebody acts like an omniscient observer to appear clever. And that’s what it really is.

    Because most of the times secrets are not shared because somebody wants a bit of spotlight. Sometimes rightly so, sometimes not. And if somebody tries to steal their thunder by metagaming, I call them an asshole and tell them to stop it. And if somebody just goes around frustrating others by keeping secrets and messing with them or betraying them in some way I call that person an asshole and tell them to stop it. And I can rely on my most unimaginative player or my most glory hog player to do it again, anyhow. But I refuse to react with more information hiding because these people just need to stuff it and that’s all there is to it.

    I try my best to share most information with everyone right away and I try to balance that with making players feel important by playing out their spotlight as the only being able to interact a situation – by spell, language proficiency or whatever. And I tell players who cannot deal with it that it is not their turn right now and they can stuff it.

  10. Playing online over text chat gives a great deal of power to players and DMs for keeping secrets, as it’s very easy to open a side-chat. Do not do this. Hiding parts of the game away reduces the experience far more than any immersion you get from selective awareness of information. It took an extended telepathic conversation for my group to realize this, and we still occasionally have skill-result information delivered silently on the side (leaving it up to the player to paraphrase the text back and lose the clue in the process), but keeping play in the open is the right way to do this.

    If you’re uncomfortable with the other players knowing about something, then why are you putting it in the game? Even if you want to play a game where you and other players are keeping game-breaking secrets from each other, why are you doing that in person? Makes me wonder how well play-by-post backstabbing intrigue would work, forum Mafia games have their following.

    • On this point, I just want to share my take.
      So in my game (D&D 5e) there’s a character with a passive perception of 20, so the way I handle it is that she notice details but doesn’t necesarily knows what they mean, so I feed her with some stuff on the side like “something is moving on those trees” or “the temperature is slightly colder here” or “the wind suddenly changed direction”, stuff like that, and have some of it be relevant and some of it not, so she still has to determinate what she needs to share or check or just ignore, that way she has a little puzzle to solve, her perception is still usefull and it doesn’t undermines the importance of hidden stuff.
      As another example, if she came into an ancient building with wooden floor, I’ll tell her “some of the boards seem out of alignment”, so she tells the party and they check the closest unaligned board and it has simply been caused by termites or something, so now it’s up to them if they ignore the rest and walk on, or want to expend the extra time checking every single board out of alignment and see if there’s anything, which they might not, I love screwing with people :p (also this is from the top of my head, I have not screwed the party into checking the entire board foor of a building, not yet anyway)

  11. This is completely off topic, but my favorite Garak quote was always:

    Bashir: “What I want to know is, of all the stories you’ve told me, which ones were true, and which ones weren’t?”
    Garak: “My dear doctor, they’re all true.”
    Bashir: “Even the lies?”
    Garak: “Especially the lies.”

  12. The only time I worry about player vs character knowledge is when the character would absolutely have no reason to know it. Example: another player in a different area does something without the other player being there. Otherwise I’m pretty free with them having a certain level now of general knowledge since the characters have spent a chunk of there lives adventuring or training to be whatever class.

  13. Your Troll example is actually a textbook definition of a straw-man. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a GM be upset with a wizard fireball-ing a Troll without some arbitrary knowledge check. Fireball-ing a troll as a wizard is inherently reasonable regardless of whether the player character has and knowledge of trolls. If in this scenario a notoriously gung-ho barbarian character who is in part defined by fearlessly charging into any battle he believes to be a good fight declines the opportunity to fight the troll and instead sprints away before observing the trolls regeneration abilities or having such knowledge firsthand, it breaks immersion and importantly MAKES NO SENSE. They may have been nearby torches or some way to acquire acid from local fauna, but instead a chance to explore the in-game world is discarded.

    The problem lies with player characters who know obscure abilities and weaknesses of creatures they have no reason to and whose actions against such creatures are inherently unreasonable. If a fighter player character encounters a monster whose appearance matches that of a rust monster with no character knowledge of such things and in defiance of that character’s personality, inclinations in battle and reason itself decides to improvise a club from nearby wood items instead of using his iron longsword that he has proficiencies with. The encounter may eventually turn to that but it’d be preferable if players could experience the world firsthand rather than just reading the monster manual.

    • See, the problem here (particularly in the second example) is that “experience the world firsthand” actually means “get royally screwed out of your favorite magic items”.

      As mentioned in the article, you are requiring the player to lose based on an arbitrary knowledge roll because it’s not a thing a character or clueless player could reasonably figure out ahead of time. Suppose you have an actual new player who honestly doesn’t know what a rust monster is. He fails the knowledge roll, hits it, and loses his shiny new +1 frost sword. Oops! he lost already. The rest of the encounter is moot. There was nothing prior to this to clue him in. This wasn’t a knowkedge roll, it might as well have been a saving throw against a sword-destroying spell cast directly on him by the GM.

      Instead, maybe you could have the players learn about the rust monsters beforehand, and then run them through a cave which is filled with other interesting and fearsome enemies while being known to be infested by rust monsters. That way they don’t have to make a choice of ‘metagaming’ fowl or knowingly getting screwed. Instead they get to make the much more interesting choice of bringing their metal equipment along and knowingly risking it, or using wooden weapons that they are not necessarily proficient with. They have experienced the rust monsters and your world first-hand: the wretched beasts have forced an interesting decision on them that impacts how they play, AND they don’t need to pretend to not know something that almost every D&D player knows.

      • While I agree that Rust Monstering a character’s magic sword (don’t they get saves?) just to remove it from the game is poor form…and yes, the Rust Monster is one of those monsters designed exclusively to be a gotcha monster…but if the idea of special attacks or defenses is to be bypassed by making sure the characters and players know everything they need to know prior to a fight what is the point of those special abilities?

        In short, (a) how do you keep the special things special, and (b) is there value in special things like monster abilities/defenses/vulnerabilities?

        Adjunct: What about monsters that aren’t on everyone’s knowledge rolodex? Something from page 639 of that old monster book, or a non-mythological (real world or gamer geek) creature? If they have special abilities, defenses or vulnerabilities are they by definition “gotchas” or just something that adds more flavor? Where’s the line?

  14. On secret keeping: I think there’s an addendum. I have to for a minute detour into an aside from a game I’m playing in sorry for that. I’m the classic ‘secret enemy’character which is a change as I’m usually comic relief guy. Now the dm and I are aware that the fact my cheerful character with the odd tick is in fact a psycho who works for the bad guys will mess with the group dynamic. I also totally prepared for the fact that when he gets found out, the party will, at best, kill him. I think to some extent though, the fact the dm and I are using elements of meta (awareness of my rep as a player and subverting it, knowing the impact of this and using that social upheaval to create a moment where the players feel the betrayal and building the characterisation without getting too attached to him knowing that the upheaval will narrativley end in his death) to improve the play. I think secrets have a use but they need not to be arbitrary and the impact needs to be thought out.

  15. I nearly completely agree.
    I run just about only home campaigns and like to use repeating characters – the PCs of campaign 1 become the high end NPCs of campaign 2. The part that annoys me is when the players treat an NPC whose been nothing but honest and loyal as liar and betrayer because of incidents of the last campaign their characters have no knowledge of. That’s the meta game knowledge use that bothers me. Still it’s rarely a major issue and not something to get pissed off about. Just another situation to be used.

    • That kind of meta-gaming is simply impossible to avoid. Either you will play so as to take the secret knowledge into consideration, or else over-compensate and act stupidly oblivious to signs of treason. The best thing to do would be to assume that all the knowledge the players have is public knowledge, that word of the exploits of these famous people has spread. You can also allow some time to pass to throw in some new twists. Joe Fighter I, the Betrayer has most of his history well known and is now working hard at redemption, while Jim Noble, the Paladin has developed a drinking problem and crisis of faith and is untrustworthy, despite this being news the to player who played him to completion before.

  16. I had an interesting situation come up with regard to exploiting player knowledge of how a particular spell works in D&D 5e. The spell in question is Polymorph, and a boss monster used it to transform the party’s tank – a fighter battlemaster – into a spider in order to dislocate his brute force. The player controlling the fighter casually mentioned to the other players that “you could just step on me” in order to end the spell on him, because by the rules of Polymorph, once the hit points of the creature you’ve been turned into are depleted, you revert back into your original form. (A spider has 1 hit point.)

    My instinct was to deny this act, because I felt it was an abuse of the wording of the spell’s rules to keep it balanced as a 4th level spell (as opposed to True Polymorph, a similar but much more powerful and debilitating 9th level spell). I hate the term “metagaming” and have never complained or cared about players apparently committing it before, but I’m not sure how a GM should deal with the above situation, especially in light of your article. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

    • I’m in a similar situation on the other side, as the DM. I’ve flat out told the player going down the dark path that he’s going to end up losing.

    • Just let them do it? If the party comes up with a clever idea, it’s fine, and you can rule that it takes an attack away to step on the fighter. Polymorph still did its job (took some player action economy away). It’s not like the party wizard wouldn’t know how the spell works anyway.

  17. I am a father of 3 kids, all under 6 years old. My wife and I recognize that, at least at this early age, if our kids do something bad, even awful to each other or someone else, it’s probably something they saw us do or say.

    In short, if our kids act up, it’s 100% our fault. When they’re older they’ll start to peel off from Mommy and Daddy’s tutelage and make choices that fall on them. The weight of our responsibility? I feel it every day, but that’s parenting.

    Same way with GMing. It is not for the weak of heart either. That’s my two cents for the day. Thank you for your remarks, Scott. I will apply them to my game.

  18. Hmm… and then there is the %$^$^%^^% who doesn’t bother to keep a secret, openly terrorizes and brutalizes innocents -but not too much cmoooooon- the rest of the party should not have noticed really, betrays the party, goes from paladin of light to anti-paladin and necromancer, starts casting negative channels instead of positive, exchanges his sword for a scythe and then accuses the lawful good cleric with high wisdom of metagaming cause the cleric insists the anti-paladin shouldn’t be left alone to be the only spokesman of the party at an important council. Thankfully after that incident the anti-paladin rage quit, I finally could stop playing my cleric like he had wisdom 5 and was blind and deaf and we finished the campaign happily.

    • Maybe it’s just the way you described it, but such a drastic change sounds like it would be noticeable by the other characters, especially a Cleric.

      • It was. He was playing paladin till out of the blue we were investigating a barn where my clerics friend was held captive, the paladin looked in and told my cleric there was no one alive, just a bunch of big bad guys we couldn’t fight, then he burned down the barn. No explanations as to why he turned evil. But since the guy straight out told us after the session “I am now evil. I will be anti-paladin / necro and raise the dead. I will also try to poison you, use you etc. Now, make sure you don’t meta.” we all had our characters pretending not to notice. Even if he was not playing blatantly evil, you can’t tell a player out of game “I am trying to undermine you, pretend you don’t notice”. Better keep that to yourself.

  19. I see this problem reflected in every damn illusion spell in a game run by a GM who played a lot of 2nd edition.

    My favorite is when, while being chased through a maze by an angry minotaur-ghost, my character fails a save to recognize a wall as illusory. We defeat the ghost, but It Will Come Back™. I then watch ALL THREE of my companions walk through the wall like it isn’t there and try again, failing the will save a second time with the +4 bonus. I then simply state that my character leans her weight against the wall, que argument.

    I hate how poorly defined ‘interaction’ is for illusions, and moreso I hate how goddang tightfisted some GMs are (usually the ones that have played a lot of 2nd edition, not to say they all act like this) with that Will save. For them, Disguise Self might as well not allow a saving throw since it doesn’t happen until the player is already 100% sure what it is. This argument happens every time the GM tells me that my rogue (I like rogues) doesn’t even get a save to avoid the illusory pit while I am actively searching for traps because it’s not ‘interaction’ until I touch it and IMMEDIATELY FALL IN WITH NO SAVES ALLOWED.

    • A lot of GMs don’t really understand that magical illusions are like real-life optical illusions. Even if you’re told that something is an optical illusion, there’s still a good chance that you can’t see the illusion. But, even if you know that something’s an illusion but can’t see it, you can still *know* that it’s illusory and act as such.

    • If all of my companions walked through a wall, I would at least check whether there is something special about the wall. Even if I didn’t realise it was an illusion, I would most likely poke it or otherwise touch it.

      Hell, even if I actively thought it wasn’t an illusion, I could still attempt to walk through it if I saw other people doing so.

  20. Metagaming becomes a near non-issue if you just create your own content. Then, player knowledge matches character knowledge.

    That being said, I prefer Angry’s approach and I’m putting it into the Codex:

    * * * The more the players (and characters) know about their enemies and environment, the more interesting the encounters can become. * * *

  21. Great article, thanks!

    One guy I game with has a very annoying habit. He’s well versed in all sorts of mythologies, comic book lore, and published game histories. Conversely, I rarely use any of that as a direct inspiration for what I do in my games because I like originality and the opportunity to vex my players with stuff they’ve never seen before. So what happens is I’ll mention that they are facing some sort of monster. This player will immediately inform the other players about all the strengths and weaknesses of this monster, based upon all the external sources. And then he gets upset with me when that monster doesn’t conform to his expectations!

    I simply state that I didn’t derive my version of the monster from the classical or comical sources, but rather, from something else entirely – something he hasn’t read (or is unable to read – i.e. my own brain!). Deal with it.

    Why didn’t the orcs respond favorably when his female elf character exposed herself to them? Simple – they were mind-controlled and behaving basically as robots. This fact was already written in as part of the adventure, so therefore it wasn’t a case where I had to make it up on the fly just to thwart his goofball attempts at getting out of a fight.

    (Of course, one of the orcs was so overcome with lust enough that he broke the mind control, but as he turned his weapons on his own kind, he was quickly slain…)

    Anyway, the fact that players will metagame is a given. Some are “better” than others as they try to live through their characters’ perspective, but the tendency is inevitable. If you think about it, the entire process of character creation is metagame, which suggests that metagaming is an integral and necessary component of the RPG experience.

  22. meh, I like metagaming, to me it comes from board gaming. If you can metagame risk so everyone attacks each other and leave you alone, you win! I translat that over to RPGs. I like situations like in Acquisitions Inc. where they clearly advise other players out of character. I think this improves the comradery of the players and helps them to get things their characters already know without me handing it to them. I plan for the metagame, not by changing the trolls weakness, but by putting things the wizard might know about where the thief is sneaking about.

  23. I absolutely love this!

    My regular group can be very rowdy and “meta”. And it used to drive me up the wall and while I wouldn’t yell at them it made the game not really fun for me so I had quit DM’ing for over a year. Over that time I learned more about the science and art of DM’ing (much from Angry himsefl) and have since come back to that group and we’ve been playing pretty regularly now for about 6 months.

    I have found the key with my group is to only ask the player to explain the “motivation/experience” when it’s something direct in the moment: i.e. The cleric is in another room fighting, so how would they know the rogue on the bottom floor was knocked unconscious? Beyond those “in the moment” elements I usually just let it play out and if the group figures something out I assumed would take more time, then I like to take the opportunity to change things up to ratchet up the difficulty in real time (drop a trap or two in front of them to slow them down or even as simple as animate the ghosts of the fallen baddies to have the group fight again).

  24. I’ve had the exact opposite problem with my current group of players, where I’ve had to regularly inform them of the things that their characters should know. ‘Silver is good against lycanthropes. Fire is good against everything. Kill it with fire’. Yes, you know what the different kinds of dragons breathe, it’s part of the culture.

    It’s gotten to the point where I’ll send the Ranger excerpts from the MM before the game.

  25. In my current game, the fantasy characters actually stumbled via a parallel universe a copy of my game’s setting book. Meta justified. 🙂

  26. If you want an alternative term to what the tabletop RP community calls “metagaming”, then you could borrow the term used in a completely different branch of the RP family tree — “infomodding”. (Which is a frankensteined neologism based on a misspelling based on a misinterpretation of a term derived from a video game, but getting into etymological details could easily turn into paragraphs just by itself.)

    Non-gaming RP has its own problems with people overreacting to the idea. A cry of “infomodding” can sometimes mean “how dare you read the public info we’re all allowed to ICly know fully when I didn’t!” or “you’re smarter than me and I can’t easily follow your logic so YOU MUST BE SHAMED BY EVERYONE!!!” The same problem of having to go through a song and dance to try to establish that your character DOES know things that there’s no good reason for them not to know can come up. Alternately, it can turn into constantly asking permission not just to know things that are private or hard to know from an IC perspective, but things that are public or easy to learn from an IC perspective too. Playing a detective becomes a pain in the ass when you’re simultaneously having to play a game of “Mother May I”.

    While I feel you’re overstating the degree to which the IC/OOC knowledge divide is illusory on one hand, I do think RP cultures at large do have a problem with jumping to conclusions of infomodding/”metagaming” too readily on the other. As you imply at the end, a non-judgmental query of “how does your character know that?” can be far more constructive and fun than flying off the handle the moment you can’t instantly see the answer for yourself. And heck, if someone’s playing a detective, one could even ask them IC. The typical detective loves explaining their reasoning.

    Concerning the idea that infomodding/”metagaming” is a fever-like symptom… it is worth noting that in my own experience, there is a deep hostility among some parties — not always just DMs/GMs/moderators/wizards/what have you, but sometimes entire communities — to the idea that one’s campaign (or local equivalent term) could ever possibly in any way be dysfunctional. There is no easier way to make enemies in the world of RP than to behave as though there is any sort of flaw in a campaign (or whatever). It doesn’t matter whether that behavior involves subtle methods like proposing a character who subtly challenges tired norms, unconscious methods like the flavors of infomodding/”metagaming” you describe, or openly stating that the emperor has no clothes and trying to talk things out like an adult. Heck, sometimes it doesn’t even matter if the people in charge are fretting about flaws in the game themselves; trying to offer help is a mortal sin.

  27. Nice topic angry! Seems like a couple of my Players have been emotionally damaged by past GM’s. I’ve made it clear that “metagaming” doesn’t bother me in any way, yet still, one or two players will dance around actions and situations at times, like they still think I care. Old habbits die hard I guess… Or the keep getting resurrected.

  28. how would you deal with a situation where one PC exits a bar to piss out back and gets mugged immediately, and as soon as the first punch is thrown all the other PCs are trying to go out back for no reason just so they can save their buddy from a fight? this seems to be the biggest issue I run into. as soon as one PC is in trouble, the others come up with reasons to rush to their aid the instant a punch is thrown. it’s not like they’ve been gone for an oddly long time, they literally walk out of the room, run into trouble, and the other PCs know that so they just run to help

    • Have another group of people distract the PC’s in the bar (either working with the mugger or just random drunks with a chip on their shoulder) is the idea that pops into my mind.

      The eager PCs don’t want to miss any excitement, so give them something exciting to do.

    • As DM I would remind them that, in the fiction, they have no idea what is happening to their companion. If they choose to ignore that I think I would end the game. But as that’s never happened I can’t be sure. But I do know I would have a hard time DMing for unreasonable people.

  29. This puts me in mind of one of your Megadungeon articles regarding enemy abilities, where enemy types are reused so that the players already know how their abilities work from previous fights.

    It was this that made me realise the problem with my lazy idea of copying boss mechanics from video games and translating them into D&D:
    Video games are replayable.
    When you die to an ability you didn’t know existed, you can try again.
    Specifically, some of the WoW boss mechanics that are very interesting and fun to play, only work because the players have looked up how to do them out of character.

    Directly, metagamed knowledge is what makes many video game boss mechanics fun.
    Without that knowledge, those same mechanics will not be fun in D&D.

    Although I suppose the players could find out about those abilities in-character instead.

  30. My favorite meta-gamish moment: Playing a weird mash-up of White Wolf’s Hunters Hunted in a sort of “League of Extraordinary Gentlemen” world sets in the 1800s. Our group meets with a number of local science big wigs at a rich guy’s house, and one of them is the visiting student Victor Frankenstein (who, we are told in whispering conference, has just recovered from a long illness and some vague legal trouble abroad). As soon as the party is alone, one member turns to everyone else and says “I do not trust that man.” Another player quips, “Why, because he makes monsters?” And without missing a beat, the first guy says, “No, because he is Swiss.”

  31. What about when it is the players accusing the DM of metagaming?

    My players frequently chew me out for having unintelligent enemies use taxtics which my players feel should be beyond their grasp, like having zombies take asvantage of flanking or avoiding attacks of opportunity. They also have a version lf the troll problem where they will cast protection from arrows on a character and then get mad when the enemy archer switches to a melee weapon rather than spending half the flight plinking away inneffectively until they “discover” that their targets are immune to their attacks.

    I was also a player in a game once where a fellow player was playing a rogue / mage and was spotting while infiltrating an enemy compound. He had never cast a spell in the pressence of the enemy and as far as they were concerned he was a mundane thief, yet each search party that the enemy sent after him included a cleric who memorized nothing but dispel magic and related spells to shut down his spellcasting ability. The player was apopleptic that the DM would have the enemies so blatantly act on knowledge they didnt have and left the game soon after.

    • My answer to the the troll problem type questions is usually fairly straightforward in that adventurer’s talk, legends spread, and heroes worth their salt hear things like “Always burn a giant, ‘specially if he’s green!” Archers might be trained to recognize tell-tale effects in the world (silver sparkles, the casting gestures, a shimmer, whatever) that denotes spells that foil them. In my own game, I basically just use transparency to avoid the arguments; I announce what the NPCs do, and the characters may respond freely. If there is doubt about something, I provide clues (“The mage’s spell leaves a quick afterimage in your eyes that looked suspiciously like a bright white shield”) and allow characters to make checks (“He casts a spell you don’t immediately recognize; roll Arcana to see if you can figure out what it might be doing”). It may be routine for smart enemies to always plan against magic-using foes, but specific instances should be justified, at least behind the scenes (the GM knows the barmaid is in the baddies’ employ and listened to the PCs practice and told them what they could do).

      As for zombies ducking hits or pressing the advantage…hmmph. That is a GM problem that can be avoided with some clever description sometimes (“The unpredictable, stumbling gait of the second zombie confuses you for an instant, throwing off your timing; as you turn to face the first one pinned against the wall, the second one lunges at your back” instead of “He goes the long way around to avoid attacks of opportunity and moves into the flank.”) However, it is abusing the contract the players make with the GM for a fair, fun game. If the players hold up their end, the GM should, too.

    • The problem in the first case is that your players are conflating “unintelligent” and “brainless”. While they’re right that a zombie wouldn’t know what flanking or AOOs are, there is no reason why a zombie wouldn’t prefer to go after the part of a character farthest away from the pointy metal thing it’s holding, or why if it opted to go after the frail character in soft cloth instead of the hulking man surrounded by metal that it would take a path that takes it within reach of the metal man’s pointy thing.

      In the example with the rogue/mage, if you lived in a world where magic and anti-magic were common, and you were running a compound big enough to have patrols, it makes sense that each patrol would have someone who could deal with magic users. It sounds like the big problem here was a breakdown in communication between the player and DM. The DM’s response to the player should have been something along the lines of “hey, you’re right that they wouldn’t know that you were a magic user, but they also wouldn’t know that you weren’t. Magic is common in this world, and the BBEG isn’t a moron. He’s going to be prepared to deal with magic users, and that includes people who would use magic to try to sneak around his compound. I’m really sorry that it feels like a screw job, but I can promise you it’s absolutely nothing personal.”

      As Angry says in the article, the problem lies with someone deciding for themselves what someone else’s character should know, and insisting they be played that way. In this case, it’s the player deciding for the GM how the GM’s NPCs should react. Specifically, the problem phrase is “as far as they were concerned he was a mundane thief.” I guarantee you that if you snuck into, say, Osama Bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan and stole stuff, they would absolutely NOT assume you were “a mundane thief,” they would assume you were a soldier or spy and act accordingly.

  32. I did have a pretty good “Player vs. Player” skill check that turned out well. We were in a temple and our wizard just bit it because of a surprise critical from a Troll. My character playing a lawful good dwarf wants to rush his body back to town to get him healed up, but the party wants to push on into the dungeon (what we hoped was the last boss).

    Aaron: Thoghen, everything’s going to be OK. Let’s keep going. **Rolls Dice**
    Me: You’re rolling a persuasion check against me?
    Aaron: No, its a bluff check. I don’t know what the f*ck is going to happen…

    This was funny, so I rolled insight and failed. So Thoghen was convinced to move on. I think its totally great if its player vs. player, as long as both players consent. (There has to be a joke in there somewhere)

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  34. i mostly agree. if i understand correctly, your solution to meta gaming is to prevent situations where it could be used. that’s brilliant. why count on players not knowing a troll is velnruable to fire, when you know they know exactly that? hell, don’t want your players to know a troll is vulnerable to fire? well why make it vulnerable to fucking fire? just decide your trolls are now vulnerable to shock, and if any of the characters read a book about trolls or something, tell him the book says trolls hate shock. if he chooses to think of the book’s trustworthiness as questionable, that’s his choice- it’s just adds more realsim. or maybe you really want to fuck people up, and you decide every troll is vulnerable to a different element in your game to make every encounter interesting (AKA a big pain in the medium ass). the part about secrets is a bit more complicated, but i also agree the same philosophy should be applied (most of the phrase was identifying the problem, but from the part about players keeping fucking secrets for no reason i understand you do not look upon secrets fondly)- if secrets can’t be kept, than just tell your players to not have secrets from each other.

    that being said, there are two types of meta gaming, and it’s important to identify. not GM and PC, but “i need to discover something” meta gaming and “what would i do if” Meta Gaming. your court example, like all the examples, belonged to “i need to discover something”, where it’s indeed is impossible to properly ignore the information you know. but giving an example from the thread that linked me to this article, someone just blitzes through traps because the player knows he can take it. it’s not a perfect example, since if every goddamn trap across the realms doesn’t kill the PC, he’ll probably learn too- but let’s assume it’s the first trap and he thinks touching it will leave a mark. it’s not impossible- in fact it’s quite easy- to think, “i know i can pass through those traps. but if my character wouldn’t know, what would he do?” if the answer is, walk through casually assuming there are no traps, than it’s fine. if the answer is, trying to detect traps and disarm them, that’s also cool. even if the answer is, “pee his pants and turn around”, go for it. the last one is an example of why it’s not perfect- but using logic and getting into character, you should still be able to decide whether he’ll consider the risk of the traps being lethal worth it or not, or whether he’ll even consider traps. if a person can’t answer a “what would i do” question, he probably isn’t the roleplayer anyway.

    also, why did you say this definition of meta-gaming is wrong? i was going to criticize it, but you then said yourself it’s right. not leaving space for any other definition is the fault of language and the way humans use it, mainly the fact needing to explain which type of meta gaming you mean every time would make the definition meta gaming pretty useless. also, it wouldn’t be just those two. due to the vagueness of “outside”, it’s a very broad definition. lore is meta-game where there is a GM. in computer RPGs, code can be considered meta-game, not being seen but influencing the game. you can even say certain layers of code are directly the game while others are meta-game.

    lastly, i know i’ll sound like an idiot, but can you uncensor the curses in future articles? after reading 50-60 of those, it’s gets hard.

    • also, forgot to add, i also agree a lot on the pop culture part. if people living in our age know everything about vampires, who are not even real, why would people living with actual vampires in ages where this kind of stories were super common not know anything about them?

  35. Most of the shit you’re complaining about? you’re right, but over all. you’re wrong. Easy example is the numbers game. only a fucking idiot says looking at the game through numbers is metagaming. the reason the argument against stuff the numbers don’t help you to know is there is because its against the fucking rules for one thing, and the other is that if allowed it turns off the games skill system and devalues the choice of being a skill based character in favor of endlessly coming up with just enough of a pluasible excuse for the dm to let you have that knowledge. and when that happens, every player will jump on board and come up with some retroactive story about how they’ve seen it all before. This may be a surprise to most players, myself even falls into this trap. but a lot of people like going into D&D not knowing and have seen everything before. it gives the characters and by proxy the players the sense of exploring a new world they’ve never been in before, and something around the corner is always worth getting excited over.

    If you want the dm to throw you a bone, roll a fucking int check or stop bitching about having to brute force an encounter or problem. No one else gets to do that shit when it comes time to roll an attack roll. The game is designed around the ability score and skill systems. If you allow metagaming you may as well tell the dm to fuck off when you try to build a cathedral with no engineering skill because you heard an ancient song of the dragon cathedral that talked about how to lay every god damn brick.

    This is why metagaming is wrong, it’s fucking cheating. it’s trying to get an advantage you don’t have. It’s the in game equivalent of saying “I have fought ogres before in my back story, so I should get a +2 to attack them” The only difference is that people don’t respect the skill system or intuition as something a character might have that a player doesn’t. Next time you want to know all the shit, play one of those classes. If you want your hick uneducated character to know shit about certain creatures, make it clear in your back story what few adventures they’ve had on your own before wandering in the game and making it retroactively whatever the dm throws at you. Thats not the dms problem to design around you fuckwhit. My dm works tirelessly to provide interesting and difficult encounters. ones that take the shit in the monster manual and beats it to a black blue and red mess of disgusting flesh. it’s fucking black and white how obvious metagamers are because even when they are being engaged and learning how the enemy works as they fight him (like a red dragon) you are still going to catch people stretching the bounds of metagaming. that is a player problem, not a dm problem. There are times when a dm makes a bad call as well, but they’re human, not assholes.

    • No. None of this. Did you even read the post? You’re actually just shouting all the things I already told you were wrong. And remember, there is only one person allowed to behave like an asshole on this site and it’s the guy who pays for the site.

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