As with the term ‘rules lawyer’, there is considerable disagreement about what ‘metagaming’ actually means.
The 3rd edition Dungeon Master’s Guide says that metagame thinking is ‘any time the players base their characters’ actions on logic that depends on the fact that they’re playing a game’. It gives the example of a player who assumes that there is a lever on the other sider of the pit trap, ‘because the DM would never create a trap that we couldn’t deactivate somehow’.
The 4th and 5th edition DMGs go further. In both books, metagame thinking is described as ‘thinking about the game as a game’.
This is hard to avoid!
Let’s say your party is facing off against a legendary foe: a vampire, perhaps, or an ancient dragon. Unless they are completely new to 5th edition, your players are probably going to know about legendary resistances. What are they meant to do? Feign ignorance, and waste their turn casting save-or-suck spells that they know will fail? That seems a little unfair.
Another example: let’s say a player is roleplaying a social encounter with an NPC. If the player says, ‘I want to try to persuade the NPC using the Persuasion skill’, is that metagaming? Strictly speaking, yes, as it is ‘thinking about the game as a game.’ But it’s hard to imagine that many tables would have a problem with such a question.
To some extent, then, every table is going to have its own definition of metagaming. It’s a spectrum, and how you interpret it depends partly on the playstyle you adopt. Groups that favour deep immersion are going to have more of an issue with metagaming than power gaming tacticians who want to kick down the door Diablo style.
Rather than trying to offer my own definition of metagaming, I would instead offer three reasons why it should be avoided: one narrative, one social, and one gamist. To some extent, the three bleed together.
1. It breaks immersion.
Metagaming has the effect of breaking character. It makes it harder for the rest of the group to suspend disbelief and immerse themselves in a fantasy. For some players, D&D is at its most fun when they can imagine themselves as part of a cool story unfolding in another world: for these players, it is enormously deflating to be reminded that they are playing a game.
2. It’s unsporting.
‘Sportsmanship’ is even harder to define than ‘metagaming’, but at its core, it is generally agreed to be about fairness, courtesy, and generosity of spirit. When one player starts to use their out-of-character knowledge to give themselves an advantage at the table, that’s neither fair, nor courteous, nor generous of spirit. In fact, it’s kind of the opposite.
Being a good player isn’t just about knowing the rules and being a good roleplayer. It’s also about not being a dick.
3. It affects game balance.
If a player has read the Monster Manual and all the published adventures, it gets hard to surprise them. What might have been a fan and challenging encounter suddenly becomes a cake-walk. What might have been a very hard-to-find treasure is suddenly easy loot. This can be particularly difficult when the players come with different levels of experience. Aggressively min-maxing can often feel like a form of metagaming, and I would argue that metagaming and munchkinnery often go hand in hand.
To some extent, metagaming happens all the time. It bothers some people more than others. It can go too far, though, and for when that happens, it’s useful to have a few solutions up your sleeve.
- Pull the focus back to the characters. If a player is persistently thinking in game terms, ask them, directly, ‘What does your character do?’
- Surprise them with homebrew. If you’re running a published adventure, and the player knows where the secret doors are, put a trap there instead! If they’ve read the Monster Manual inside and out, and they know every monster’s weakness, throw something at them that subverts their expectations: a troll with fire immunity, for example, or an archmage with a different spell list.
- Balance the three pillars. Metagaming is something that probably affects combat the most, so build in more exploration, more social interaction. Not every problem can be solved with a sword.
- Talk to the player. Ultimately, if metagaming is becoming a problem, and the options above haven’t worked, then have a private conversation about it with the players concerned. Give them the benefit of the doubt: they might not realize that their behaviour is spoiling the fun for other people. But if they’re doing it intentionally and don’t change their ways, then maybe it’s time to consider whether they are still welcome at your table.
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