Metagaming, in a board game, is the game above the game. It's the social savvy in Bohnanza or Monopoly, tricky wording and deals in Cosmic Encounter or Diplomacy, or the planning ahead needed in a game of Chess or Risk. Metagaming is a board gaming skill used in most games, from Yahtzee to poker. So why is it so frowned upon in role playing games? The common scenario is that a group of players come across a troll and start burning it or throwing acid and the GM calls shenanigans. I believe this is because the dungeon master feels cheated because their encounter becomes trivialized with the knowledge the players bring to the table. In my opinion, player knowledge and skill helps the players get into the game. Who, in a fantasy world rife with orcs, trolls, and vampires, would venture out to fight monsters with no common knowledge? Tell me, how do you kill a vampire? Do you think someone who lived in a world where vampires really exist would have more or less knowledge than you? Taking all that into perspective metagaming takes many forms that we just don't recognize. Let's take a look at some of the oft overlooked forms of metagaming that we already do at the table and then we can talk about that player who brings a monster manual to the table.
1) It's A Game
First up, the shortest answer: it’s a game. Frank the fighter doesn't know what second wind or weapon proficiencies are. He only knows how to power through and what he can wield. Anytime you invoke mechanics not based in the fiction, react with rules, or state an action to perform, you are metagaming.
2) Player Skill
D&D has its roots in player skill. It is only in the later editions that emphasis on skill checks have made their way to the front of gaming. Deciding when to cast a spell or invoke an ability is player skill. Figuring out puzzles or how to get past an obstacle is the player using their skill to complete a challenge. Skill use is still metagaming by using a mechanic to eliminate a barrier. By leaving the decision in the players hands they can be the guide of their character and keep them in the game longer.
3) We're All Playing Together
Hey, let's have fun. We don't need to come down on a player that uses common sense, even if it's outside of a fictional character. Keeping the game moving and fun sometimes needs a little nudge from outside of the fiction. Sometimes the player, if they realize they've gotten off track, can be creative and move the group back in the right direction. If everyone focused on the fiction, there may be no reason to play after one adventure because that haul set you up for years. Besides, adventuring is stupid and dangerous. But since we all got together to roll some dice with familiar characters, buck up young cleric and head to into that dungeon anyway!
4) PvP Can Be Fun...
...but only when everyone has bought in. Can we have a discussion in real life before we start a fight to assure that we are all on the same page? We can in a role playing game, and if we can see both sides of the disagreement it makes the player versus player all the more fun. What could be more fun than taking the age old “paladin versus thief” conundrum meta? Maybe the paladin’s player sees the thief’s player roll a pickpocket check, but tells the dungeon master that he wants to hear the reaction and go to the person aid when they discover what’s missing. This can build tension at the table instead of resentment, especially if the thief’s player can get meta and explain the (lack of) remorse when the party offers to help retrieve the item. Other players can chime in with ideas that could lead to the thief planting evidence on one of her biggest adversaries and pinning the theft on them! A whole scene, and maybe an adventure, created by using the players to control the characters and the scene. So meta.
5) Keeping Secrets Is Bad
Who's the new guy and why is he so quiet? What's he hiding? If we all know these things at the table, then we can ask leading questions and make our scenes all the better. Why worry if the dungeon master brought in a ringer if the DM can just say, “this guy will betray you, but your characters don't know it.” What an exciting betrayal you all can set up together. I love working with my players to make plots against their characters. Two heads (or even more) are better than one, so why not let them in on the fun?! Of course I still like to play some things close to the vest, if only for the surprise factor.
Cooperative storytelling works a lot better if we all work together to advance the fiction. How better to bring a team together than by taking input from all sources? It’s like a brainstorming session; there are no wrong answers, only ideas! By sourcing our table and asking what is good for our fiction we can go beyond the limits of one mind and can riff off of each others’ suggestions. Playing in and building together a shared world remains the best reason to accept metagaming at your table.
Richard Fraser has been roleplaying since the early days of Dungeons and Dragons and started with the red box in the eighties. He currently prefers to DM fifth edition D&D, though reads a lot of OSR and PbtA. He currently has podcast, Cockatrice Nuggets and maintains a blog, both of which can be found at www.slackernerds.com.
Picture provided by the author