GM: “From your vantage point you see two trolls cooking something over a fire pit. Both wear what looks like leather armor and carry large two-handed weapons. Two cave entrances behind them are dark but you can hear occasional noise coming from inside. What are you guys doing?”
Player 1: “Those trolls look pretty tough, maybe we should find a way to get around them.”
Player 2: “You may be right. (To the GM) How dangerous are trolls?” (Rolls a skill check)
GM: “Well you know that they are tough, resilient, and really strong. These two appear to have some martial training and look VERY capable.”
Player 1: “OK, let’s create some sort of distraction to draw them off while we sneak in.”
Player 2: “Sounds good, I’ll…..”
Player 3: “I’m going in, we can take them!”
Player 1 & 2: “What!? Are you crazy?”
Player 3: “Obviously this is a combat encounter. We’re in good shape let’s go!” (To the GM) “My character charges down the hill…”
Have you ever had a situation like this in your game? If you’ve been roleplaying for any length of time, I’m sure you have. In gaming circles this is called metagaming – justifying character actions through player assumptions and game knowledge. It usually happens when players make in-game decisions for their characters based on out-of-game reasoning.
Metagaming can become very disruptive in your game, especially to the players who are of the immersive, roleplaying-heavy bent. Not only does it completely break the roleplaying atmosphere, but if you play at my table it can also have disastrous consequences. A couple of years ago one of my players led an entire party to a TPK solely based on the belief that “if the DM put them there then surely we can, and are supposed to kill them!” If you have gamers at your table that love being “in character” or who really enjoy “getting into” the story and setting, then metagaming can completely destroy their enjoyment of the game. At the very least, it is distracting and annoying.
I classify metagaming into two broad categories: lesser and greater. Lesser metagaming tends to be more of a nuisance whereas greater metagaming can be downright destructive. Both types can be a problem. The following discusses each type in depth, and include suggestions as to how to manage them at the table.
Every gaming group has their own level of “table talk” that is acceptable. I have no problem when my players say tactical things to each other in combat, like “Verick, push him toward me!” or even, “Verick, use Tide of Iron!” My justification for that is that any group of people who enter combat situations together on a regular basis are bound to develop certain hand signals, gestures, and short verbalizations to convey exactly that kind of combat information to one another.
For many players it is difficult enough just to keep player knowledge and character knowledge separate. I think of this as Lesser Metagaming. A good example of this is when a player acts on knowledge obtained during a conversation that occurred between an important NPC and a different party member, even though the first player’s character wasn’t present for the conversation. As a DM, I usually assume that the characters share information amongst themselves when time allows. But sometimes there just hasn’t been the opportunity for the characters to talk and catch up or the character with the information wants to withhold it for some reason. This level of metagaming is usually pretty easy to deal with in any one of the following ways:
- Simply remind the offending player that his character wasn’t there or doesn’t know that. I personally hate having to break game in order to remind players of this but sometimes it’s necessary.
- Conduct conversations and events that happen between NPC’s and a limited number of party members in private. Step into another room or ask the players whose character isn’t present to step away from the table.
- Share limited information by passing notes. That way the receiving player can decide when, or if, to share the information with the rest of the party.
The greater level of metagaming, and the one I find very frustrating to have at the table, is the player whose character repeatedly acts upon knowledge and information that the character does not, or could not possess. This ranges from the player who “knows” the Monster Manual and confidently attacks the creatures because “They’re 5th level!” to the player that completely neglects roleplaying and refers to everything in the game by stat, number, or mechanic.
This player can be much more difficult to deal with. The lesser metagamer is frequently just “caught up” in the story and sometimes forgets where his character is, or was, whereas the greater metagamer is usually someone who approaches roleplaying games in a board game, card game, or miniatures game fashion where more often than not you need to speak from a rules-centric point of view. Sometimes this stems from habits acquired with a different gaming group where metagaming was acceptable or even encouraged.
Over the years it seems like I have encountered this type of gamer regardless of game, setting, or group and each time the impact is the same – other players are pulled out-of-character, I’m forced to spend valuable time performing “player management”, and the story suffers. Dealing with this situation usually requires a two-pronged approach. First:
- Pull the player, or players, aside and discuss the situation. If the metagaming habits are distracting the other players or interfering with the game let them know that. Keep in mind you may need to give some examples. I’ve found that many metagamers frequently have no idea that they‘re doing it or that it’s disruptive to others, especially if the player has gamed with groups where this kind of gaming is the norm.
The second part of dealing with this is usually the need to address the “gaming climate” at the table. Every gaming group has a certain approach to the game. If a metagamer is disruptive to your group’s approach, you can encourage behavior modification through your decisions as a DM. Make sure metagaming isn’t rewarded and doesn’t contribute to success. A few things that I do in my approach to campaign design that discourage metagaming include:
- Customization. 4th edition D&D is the easiest system I’ve ever used when it comes to altering, modifying, and customizing monsters and NPC’s. At least half of the opponents my players face are modified from their stock Monster Manual entries. In fact, adjusting a creature up or down a few levels is easy even “on the fly”. Customizing keeps your players guessing and downplays your metagamer’s knowledge.
- Mix it up. Most of the players at my table know that just because something appears to be an encounter doesn’t mean it’s a combat encounter. Many encounters I design are socially interactive, skills-based, or even investigatory in nature. I don’t ever restrict the players in how they deal with a situation, but I also make sure that they feel the repercussions of approaching every situation the same way or at the very least make sure they realize that other options exist, and in fact, may have been a better alternative.
- Assumption. Many RPG’s assume that as a gamemaster you will be designing encounters that are “level-appropriate” for your gaming group. Although this approach is a good baseline to adventure design, your players are well aware of this and some will act based on this assumption. Most of my players have learned (sometimes the hard way) that I don’t strictly follow this philosophy. In the real world many people may subscribe to the thought that “god only gives you challenges you can deal with” but in my world this god is an uncaring bastard. I won’t ambush a group of 3rd level characters with a patrol of paragon tier trolls, but when your party spots the patrol and decides to attack it you can bet the fight will be a short one.
- Information. I’m a detail-oriented DM. I try to always describe the character’s surroundings in ways that they can not only “feel” the setting but also potentially glean important information from it. Before the characters get in over their head, or make a foolish decision, I’m always sure to have dropped plenty of clues and hints as to the nature of the peoples, places, and events around them. Some of my players pay attention while others assume that “player knowledge” will trump “character knowledge”.
If you are like me and find metagaming to be disruptive, remember that there are many ways to subtly, and not so subtly, influence player behavior. But the most important thing to remember is that roleplaying is a social group activity. Different people with different personalities, habits, and behaviors are coming together for a cooperative experience, and like any group social dynamic, everyone will approach things in their own unique way. If a player’s methods are disruptive, always start by just talking to the individual, more often than not simple communication is the key to a more harmonious gaming environment, and therefore a less stressful gaming experience.