The Role of Metagaming

Ask any D&D player the principal sin of roleplaying games, and you’re likely to get a single-word answer: metagaming. Often spoken with a venomous tone as a serious roleplayer inveighs against another person’s power-gaming shenanigans, or as part of a caution to a new players, or by DMs who are irritated that players have turned their carefully laid plans into catastrophic screwjobs, no single term has accumulated as much animosity as metagaming has in the D&D community.

Of course, like virtually every other term that has attained such levels of infamy, the reality is a little more complex than what many people like to believe. In fact, metagaming is not the worst thing that can happen at your table, and sometimes it can be a valuable tool. In this article, we’ll take a second look at metagaming and how it can be used as a tool for good.

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What is Metagaming?

The first and foremost thing that needs to be done is to properly define what metagaming is. Many people may have already realized this, but “metagaming” is an outright fallacious way to describe the concept that “metagaming” tries to describe. Granted, nobody actually uses the prefix ‘meta-’ correctly; everyone uses it to indicate the nature of a concept—a metarule governs the application of rules, and metadata is data about other data. It’s wrong, but language evolves and so here we are.

By contrast, when we talk about metagaming in D&D, we aren’t talking about a framework behind the game’s rules. What we’re talking about is using real-life knowledge to frame the decisions of in-game characters who do not possess that knowledge and who, without that knowledge, would possibly act differently.

Obviously, there are many occasions where metagaming can be problematic. For one, it can break the immersion of the game if players treat the trials and tribulations of their characters as little more than numbers on a page. Additionally, it can be problematic to the balance of combat if the players act on information the characters should not have. But these are all well-established concerns with metagaming, and we could write thousands of words about it and tell nobody nothing they do not already know. We’re not writing about the evils of metagaming and the inevitable moral decay of anyone who partakes in this particular brand of sacrilege, we have bigger plans for this article.

Why We Need Metagaming

As troublesome as it can be, metagaming can be an invaluable tool. Below are some problems that many tables face that are quite easily solved with a healthy dose of metagaming.

Roleplaying

It may sound paradoxical, as many people view metagaming and roleplaying to be opposite ends of a very clearly marked spectrum, but in truth a great deal of metagaming is involved in determining your character’s values and how they fit into the world in which they find themselves.

Take, for example, the archetypal paladin: lawful good, a knight in shining armour, a beacon of justice. The party arrives in a town where a series of goblin raids has prompted the local lord to order walls constructed around the entire settlement. Such an endeavour is extremely costly, and to finance the project the lord has raised many taxes, as well as imposed some new ones. Failing to pay these unaffordable taxes has resulted in a local brewess—a widowed mother of two—having her assets declared forfeit. While resisting the seizure of her belongings, the party witnesses the sheriff roughly place her under arrest.

How does the character respond to this? As a lawful good paladin, do they respect the rule of law and recognize that sacrifices must be made for the greater good, or does the sight of such unbridled tyranny compel them to act, possibly drawing them into conflict with the local authority? This is the kind of judgment call that requires that you consider the type of society in which your character lives and reconcile your character’s values with your own. After all, if you don’t get fulfillment out of your character’s triumphs, why bother playing?

It’s strange that the most oft-cited advice for roleplaying in D&D is the exact opposite of advice that is typically offered for people who wish to be professional actors. In D&D, everyone says to distance yourself from your character; in acting, you want to build a personal connection with the character you play. So what if you insert your own values and personality into the character? You already form memories while playing D&D in the same way you form memories of real experiences; you may as well be your character.

“My Guy” Syndrome

Even those of you who have never heard this term are likely familiar with what it describes. The name originates from the RPG.net forum discussion about how players sometimes disclaim responsibility for their characters’ actions, claiming that they cannot go against their fictional character’s motivations and tendencies. One user who goes by the name JD Corley shared an especially profound example of how this can ruin everyone’s fun:

So here’s a practical example from the halcyon days of My Guyness and me.
d6 Star Wars. I was playing a trigger-happy demolitions expert. We were going onto an enemy ship in order to get the bad guy.
I say, “I have enough explosives, you know what? We don’t even need to sneak onto the ship. I’ll just plant the explosives below the engine exhaust.”
Jedi player: “Dude, don’t do that, I want to have my guy face off with the evil bastard in a big lightsaber fight.”
Me: “But it’s what my guy would do, it’s the most effective way to take him out with the least chance of getting caught or hurt.”
Alien diplomat player: “But I really wanted to find out what his plan was!”
Me: “It’s what my guy would do, who cares what his plan was if he’s dead?”
After some back-and-forth, the following transpired, which REALLY shows how much the well can be poisoned:
Jedi player: “Damn, well, you’re right, it’s what your character would do, go ahead.”
Alien diplomat player: “Crap on a stick, yeah, go ahead. It’s what your guy would do.”
Me: “Sorry guys.”
GM: “Roll ’em.”
And I blew up the ship and the campaign was over and we won and all the players, myself and the GM included, had a miserable time.
Who’s fault was this?
Sure as hell wasn’t “my guy’s” fault. (Or the designer or the GM.) It was MY fault.
And yet I felt absolutely no responsibility at all, and my fellow players didn’t think it was my responsibility, and perversely, they often said, “I guess it was good roleplaying…” in campaign postmortems. Good roleplaying?? Damn, if good roleplaying means “everyone is miserable and thinks it’s stupid”, let me go find another hobby like getting beaten with sticks.
Even though I had designed the character to make that decision, and the GM had set up the general situation, and I had evaluated the specific situation, somehow an inanimate piece of paper became a token by which we could disclaim all responsibility for our own miserableness. We didn’t even say “hey next time we should make sure our characters end up doing things that make us here in the real world happy and fulfilled”. We just went and made the same mistake again. Why? Because I didn’t do it, “it was what my guy would do”. Pfui. I shall never do that bullshit again. Knock on wood.

There are some people who might look at this and not see the fault of the player, but rather the negligence of the DM in allowing for such an anticlimactic resolution. As a veteran Dungeon Master with more than 15 years of experience, I wish I could share your optimism on the ability of a DM to always be prepared for absolutely every eventuality, never leaving the door open for any player shenanigans. Try as DMs might to expect the unexpected, the fact of the matter is that players can and will occasionally outsmart them, especially if the DM avoids the oft-maligned “rail-road” campaigns (a subject for a whole other article). The solution, then, is to accept that your character has no agency save for what you give to them, and take responsibility for pushing the story in the direction that you want to go.

Staying in the Genre

There are many different ways to play D&D, and knowing what kind of story your character is in can have a significant impact on virtually everything. If you know that you are playing a typical high fantasy style game where characters are heroic and rarely faced with odds against which they can’t prevail, it will most likely guide your decisions along a different course than if you know that you’re in a horror campaign where you’re being haunted by a foe you can only defeat with the right tools.

One does not simply stroll into Barovia, bust down the door to Castle Ravenloft, and hunt down Strahd von Zarovich at level 1. Why? Because everyone knows—even before the characters do—that he is a powerful vampire. Should the players be shamed for not leaping at the chance to fight him early if it appears, just because the characters may not be aware of how dangerous he is? No, not only because the players would resent the DM, knowing that a TPK is a foregone conclusion, but also because it makes the build up to the final confrontation (when the characters are ready for the challenge) all the more enjoyable.

Being aware of what kind of game you’re in allows you to make genre-savvy choices that contribute to everyone’s enjoyment of the experience. The expectations of a sword and sorcery campaign are going to be different than a heroic adventure campaign, and you build up certain expectations by reinforcing the flavour of fantasy that your campaign uses. That simply isn’t possible without metagaming. If the characters fail to engage with the tropes because your players fear to fall into metagaming habits, it simply won’t be the same.

Advancing the Story

Sometimes, two player characters may have absolutely no reason to work together, or a quest hook won’t be as compelling as it could be, or some other obstacle could arise that has the potential to make everyone’s lives unnecessarily hard. To continue with drawing examples from Star Wars, you may have run into the moment in A New Hope when Han Solo decides that he’s done enough and is under no obligation to risk his life attacking the Death Star.

Of course, as we all know, Han Solo came back to help. Why? Well, you can claim that it’s because Luke’s morality had worn off on him, or that he couldn’t stand by and watch his friends die, or that he wanted to impress the rebels with his timely assistance… you can come up with a plethora of possible motivations for his character to have made this decision. Ultimately, however, the reason is simple: it made for a good story. The audience wanted to see heroes, and this was Han Solo’s heroic moment. And would you really have had it any other way? When George Lucas was writing the story, do you think he thought, “Well, Han Solo will be written out here because that’s where his motivation stops”? Of course not. He was focused on the story, just like everyone at the D&D table should be. The goal is to have fun; everything else is secondary.

Good Metagaming

So what does a good example of metagaming look like? Let’s consider a scenario that often comes up in discussions of metagaming: fighting a troll. Every D&D player knows that trolls don’t like fire, but not all DMs are on board with the idea of this kind of thing being common knowledge to amateur adventurers. The scene below demonstrates one possible way to use metagaming to avoid telling a bad story that leaves people frustrated.

Dungeon Master (DM): The fearsome creature lays dead, the dirt beneath its eviscerated form darkening with its foul blood. What would you like to do now that it has been felled?
Gary: So, troll?
Everyone: Definitely.
Gary: Alright.
Gary (playing Arik the fighter): I want to examine this creature’s corpse. I’ve never seen something so ugly and fearsome, I want to get an idea of what it is now that it isn’t rushing around all teeth and claws.
Jean (playing Selyse the wizard): I would also like to examine it. I have a suspicion that some foul magic is at play here and I want to describe this thing as best I can to my scholar colleagues in case a full investigation needs to be mounted.
Dungeon Master: Alright, whichever of you has the higher Intelligence modifier can make an Intelligence check with advantage.
Jean: Does by Arcana skill apply?
Dungeon Master: Sure!
Jean (rolling 2d20): Oh, that’s fifteen!
Dungeon Master (checking their passive Perception scores): The two of you start discussing creatures you’ve heard of, comparing what you know of them, trying to narrow down what this creature could be. A few moments pass and a key detail becomes apparent: the wounds you inflicted on this creature are closing before your eyes! Selyse, you have heard of this creature in your studies because of the alchemical uses of its blood—it’s a troll! It can only be permanently killed with acid or fire damage.
Jean: Oh, I want to light it on fire with fire bolt!
Dungeon Master: Because you rolled so well on your check, you were able to discern this information quickly enough. The creature opens its eyes just as you cast the spell, sending out a blast of flame. The troll lets out an ear-splitting shriek, clutching at its ruined face, and the horrible scent of burnt trollflesh fills your nose and mouth as it goes through its violent death throes. Then it is still once more.

As you can see from this scene, the DM gave the players an opportunity to use their character abilities to confirm their own suspicions, taking a lead offered by one character to determine what skill could be used and why the character might know what they know. Depending on your table, you may let the player come up with the details of how they know things (if they’re comfortable with doing so or don’t want to relinquish control of those details).

Here’s another situation that also frequently comes up: the old “Right Place, Right Time”, where a player knows that something is occurring in one place that their character is not, and has to find some reason to make their way to the action.

Dungeon Master (DM): Now, Selyse has been knocked unconscious by a poison dart on the far side of the camp, and Mort the rogue’s passive Perception has failed to detect it. She will soon be dragged into the bushes. Who wants to tell me a story?
Dave (playing Mort): You know, earlier, I cut Selyse off when she was trying to explain something important. I’ve got to say, that’s been bothering me all night, and I’m going to take this opportunity while we’re both on watch to quietly apologize while nobody else is awake. I start to head over there.
Penny (as Melody the bard): You know, Melody really got banged up from that fall earlier, and she keeps waking up to one ache or another. As Mort walks by, she’s still in a really light sleep and is wakened again.
Gary (as Arik): Ha ha, have fun, guys. Arik is in a pretty deep sleep.
Dungeon Master: Perfect, Mort can make a Wisdom (Perception) check to look for where Selyse is supposedly maintaining watch. Melody, we’ll say that you don’t have disadvantage on your passive Perception since you’re awake. Arik… you’re definitely at disadvantage on passive Perception, and someone will have to shout or shake you to wake up.

In this scene, the typical dynamic where the DM is the storyteller was turned around, and the players were given the chance to use their creativity to engage the situation. One made a roleplaying decision, another came up with a plausible reason to be involved in the situation, and a third opted to go the humorous route and play the scene as expected. It’s clearly metagaming, and it makes no apology for it, but rather than beating the players over the head with this scene, the DM has opted to include them in the solution, turning it into a very different experience that is bound to be more interesting and entertaining.

Conclusion

Contrary to what many DMs will tell you, metagaming is not always a bad thing. While it has the potential to be abused (and instances of cheating should certainly be addressed), metagaming is in and of itself not problematic. In fact, it’s inevitable, and should be embraced.

If handled responsibly, metagaming can be an opportunity to introduce roleplaying elements or encourage players to contribute and engage the game in unforeseen ways. You can use metagaming to add layers onto a scene and create opportunities for players to embrace or subvert tropes in ways that lead to meaningful character development. Metagaming can help keep the game from spiralling out of control when the dice would send you down the rabbit hole. And most importantly, metagaming can be a valuable tool to help people do the most important thing: to have fun.


Do you have a great story about metagaming? Leave a comment below! We’d love to hear from you!

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Art credit: “Volo” from Tomb of Annihilation


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