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I have said it before, and I will most likely say it again and again: Metagaming is a worse crime to me than cheating at dice rolls.  I am sure some of you will disagree with me on this, but let’s face it, metagaming takes place a hell of a lot more often than shuffled dice rolls.  It’s a crime against the spirit of the game, against the rules of the game, and against your fellow players.

Let me start my argument with a good, solid definition of metagaming.  In role-playing games, a player is metagaming when they use knowledge that is not available to their character in order to change the way they play their character (usually to give them an advantage within the game), such as knowledge of the mathematical nature of character statistics, or the statistics of a creature that the player is familiar with but the character has never encountered. In general, it refers to any gaps between player knowledge and character knowledge which the player acts upon.

What this comes down to is cheating of the worst caliber.  If you are playing Swen the Sturdy Fighter, known for his exploits in combat, and his rather less than excellent intellect, how the hell can you explain away the sudden knowledge that Swen has regarding the magical nature of a lich?  That’s right, without taking the necessary skill or skills (in this case, to me, it would be Arcana or Religion), you would have no honest clue.  You may know that a lich is an undead magic user, and that its spells can be deadly, but you have no idea of the nature of the ritual that turned it into a lich, or what its phylactery should look like, etc.  Details are something you will not possess.

Now, let’s look at why, to me, this is tantamount to treason.

You have all read my previous articles on character immersion, character role, and character creation, I assume.  If not, I suggest you do so, because they play a huge role in this explanation.

When you take part in a roleplaying game, and I do mean ROLE playing game (wherein you take on a role), you are subsuming your own knowledge base for that of your character.  This is symbolized by the skills and attributes you have taken, as well as any little notes you have taken along the way.  And yes, I always suggest my players take notes.  Why should I make them roll a die to remember something when they have run into it time and again?  Unless, that is, they have not written it down, symbolizing their memory.  Your character’s abilities and capabilities are logged and maintained this way.  Because of this, it also shows the limitations of your character.  This is not a bad thing.  Remember, these games are about cooperation as a group, not just the one ubercharacter, and the poor schlubs that tag along.

So what you have here is the law of the land when it comes to the game.  Your character cannot know more than what the notes and notations dictate.  Your warrior may have intense and deep knowledge of the fighting styles of the Akabarran region of the world, but that does not mean that he has an in depth knowledge of the folklore of the Cindawi people of Akabarr.  And just because you, the player, have read the novels of the Cindawi Cycle that describe all the little myths they have, it does not mean your character knows that.  Has he taken the skills?  Have you made the notes and cleared that knowledge with your game master?  Well guess what?  If you act on that knowledge that you have, in game, you are metagaming.  Not only that… but you are breaking the law of the land, and you are doing so in an effort to steamroll your fellow players, keeping one or two of them from contributing to the game in a meaningful way.  Chances are, you are even screwing over the storyline when you do stuff like this.

What this means is, if the game were a nation, you just betrayed the nation in the pursuit of your own interests.  And that, to me, is one of the worst sins you can commit in a roleplaying game.

Metagaming does a number of negative things.  It destroys the separation of the physical world from the game world.  It is in infiltration that removes the suspension of disbelief from the game.  When you do that, it ceases to be an immersive, interactive environment meant to stimulate creativity and ingenuity, and turns it into just another game of Monopoly, Axis & Allies or Trivial Pursuit.  And let’s face it, if we wanted to be playing those games, we would be.

Metagaming also destroys the cooperation of the players as a team.  When you read some of the great fantasy novels of our time, whether it is Tolkien, Weis & Hickman, Salvatore, Williams, or whomever, you see how each member of the team contributes something.  And the gaps that one may have in their knowledge can often be filled by the knowledge of another character.  There is a reason Tanis Half-Elven would turn to Raistlin when things confused the hell out of him.  There is a reason Aragorn looked to Gandalf when faced with the door to Moria.  There is a reason that Drizzt turned to Cadderly when his beloved Catti-Brie was beset by the Spellplague.  They had no idea what was going on, and these people did.  The game is not about one character grandstanding over the others constantly.  This does not even happen in the real world; otherwise we would not have specialist doctors, specialist computer programmers, and specialists of any stripe.

One other thing that metagaming does is it transforms the player from someone who is interested in experiencing the game, into one that is only interested in “winning” the game.  And I put winning in quotations on purpose.  There is no way to “win” at a roleplaying game.  “Winning” at a roleplaying game is like dividing by zero: all it accomplishes is the destruction of the universe.  It is instead about the cooperative and collaborative efforts of the player and the game master in order to craft a complete and compelling story involving everyone in equal parts.  When one player actively undermines this, they destroy the enjoyment of the game.  As said above, it ceases to be an interactive environment, and becomes a game of “let me see if I can beat you all at every turn.”  And that, my friends, is fun for no one.

There are few things in game that will set me off like metagaming, even when I am another player.  I have both banned people from my table at conventions for metagaming (where they have actually paid to play in my game), and I have gotten into damnably intense arguments with fellow players when I was not behind the GM Screen about their metagaming behavior.  If you are at my table and I catch you cheating at dice rolls, I will pull you aside, tell you I can see what you are doing, and that my suggestion is to not do it again.  I will keep it private.  If I catch you metagaming, it’s public.  I will embarrass you in order to get my point across.  This may sound harsh, but as I said, metagaming to me is a worse crime.  Fudging a die roll just means you get one over on chance.  Fudging character knowledge means you try to get one over on your fellow players.

This is what it comes down to, folks.  We all play these games to become someone different for a little while.  We do it to subsume our own psyche into one we have created.  In a sense, we truly become our character.  And when another player takes the initiative to try and make themselves better than the others by bringing along more baggage, he or she isn’t interested in being a part of the game.  They are just interested in engaging in what is, essentially, Alpha Male Behavior.  He or she is trying to one-up everyone else in an effort to bolster their own ego and sense of superiority.  And let me tell you friends, in my eyes, they have only proven their own inferiority.

What do you think?

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8 Comments

  1. Oh, and really quick, wikipedia does a great job of defining just what examples of metagaming behavior is in this entry: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Metagaming_%28role-playing_games%29
    I really suggest reading it over.

  2. Metagaming is something that a good DM plans for and uses to their advantage.

    First example, nearly every D&D player knows that trolls are notorious difficult to kill unless you use fire. As DM, I assume that my players–who all have been playing D&D for over a decade–know this. How do I handle metagaming?

    OPTION 1: Yell at them when they light a torch. This will show them that I dislike metagaming while reducing the fun for everyone. They know the solution to the combat, but they now have to pretend to solve it. Not genuinely fun for anyone.

    OPTION 2: Make the trolls vulnerable to SALT instead. When the PCs light up the torches and find them less effective than they expected, suddenly their minds are engaged.

    OPTION 3: Give the trolls a degree of protection from fire. This means that even with fire, the trolls are going to be TOUGH.

    Second example, I recently ran a campaign that was the third campaign set in the same gaming world and city. Most of the people at the table had played in the previous games and had intimate knowledge of what was going on in the overstory. This is knowledge that their new characters WOULD NOT KNOW. To compensate for this, I granted each player a free rank in Knowledge (Local-City the campaign was based in) for each level they gained. This gave the characters an in-game reason to know what the character would otherwise not have known.

    To recap, I think that metagaming should be kept to a minimum by the players, but a good DM manages metagaming like all of the other things that effect the table.

    • (This is only so I get notified of replies.)

    • @ the troll fire weakness thing thing: Or you could go the completely EVIL route and make your trolls “Oil Trolls”

      Picture it!

      Player: “I throw the torch at him!”
      DM: “The Troll bursts into flame, the fire covering its entirely oily body…It proceeds to go on a rampage, slinging burning oil-sweat all over and igniting the entire hallway…”
      Player: “Oh Gods.”

      And about the DM managing metagaming, that’s a good rule. Reminds me of the time I did freestyle tabletop DND, there was ONE time I went into out-game talk, and it was to point out a contradiction. “Hey, DM? You say one half of the party is outside the vampire-that-just-turned-into-a-dragon, and the other half is in his mouth fighting to get OUT….But…They got into the dragon from the OTHER end WHILE it was a dragon, and my first half of the team was fighting him as a vampire before he transformed…what the heck, man?” And then he opened and closed his mouth a few times and went “DAMMIT. Fine. Free level for your whole team, since you’re such a smart@#$.” 😄

  3. I will agree that a good GM should indeed be prepared to deal with it when it happens. And some of the minor metagaming, like you bring up about the trolls, can indeed be easily explained away by folklore and the like. I also like your creative use of making the metagamed though invalid through improvisation. I have said it to a number of people, and more than a number of times: improvisation is the greatest tool in your GM’s Toolbox. That, and it was nice to see you come up with some good argument regarding this, Amazing Rando. And yes, I know who you are… heh heh heh.

  4. I like to find solutions that keep everyone at the table having fun, as well as keeping their minds engaged.

    Another favorite trick of mine is to take the monster I want to use and rename it and change it’s description dramatically. I once used a leonal stats for a giant intelligent bug creature.

  5. i don’t mind a bit of metagaming on things like trolls, which are honestly pretty common in D&D campaigns. you’d have to be some sort of idiot to take up walking into dark holes filled with monsters, in a world filled with such fantastical things, and not have heard of a troll before.

    when i want to have a monster that the PCs have truly never heard of and know nothing about, i make sure its a monster that the players know nothing about. much easier than trying to govern their behaviour, and more entertaining.

  6. This was a really fun read. 🙂

    I also happen to hate metagaming. If you’re playing a tabletop game, there is no excuse. You’re there to play a role, and if you start claiming things your character can’t know (A barbarian who knows the lore behind disabling golems or something like that, for example) can really kill the fun. 😦

    I know this is an old article, but still, thanks for making it. ^_^


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