A frequent bane of the tabletop gaming community, especially Dungeons and Dragons, is the metagamer. A quick perusal of almost any TTRPG forum or group will net you dozens of questions about how to ‘deal’ with them, complaints about their antics, and general irritation with their particular brand of gaming.
If you aren’t familiar with TTRPG terminology, this can be a little confusing. What are metagamers? Why are these players so reviled? And how can you avoid being one? Here’s a brief overview and guide.
What is Metagaming?
Metagaming is what happens when a player applies their real life knowledge to the actions that they take within the game itself, despite their character not having access to that knowledge. It’s a bit like a reverse fourth wall break.
Lets say that Joe Shmoe is playing a character based off of The Little Mermaid. The character has just recently come onto land, and knows very little about the world thereon. When the character comes across a shambling mound (a sentient shrub), Joe knows that setting it on fire would take care of it pretty quick. So, he has his character light a torch and set the beast ablaze.
This is a smart tactical move, and most DMs would allow it, if it were done by almost any other type of character. But a character who grew up in the ocean wouldn’t know that you even can light things on fire, much less what is weak to it or how to go about it in combat. So having the character use fire, based off of Joe’s knowledge and not the character’s, is metagaming.
For the most part, if a player has given their character a notable knowledge gap, it was intentional, and they’re going to want to stick to it. Metagaming more often happens in terms of utilizing less obvious weaknesses or peculiarities to monsters, making realizations out of character and then playing on them, or anticipating abilities that don’t yet have, and putting actions off until they get them. Often, players won’t even realize that they’re metagaming at all, simply focused on making a smart strategic move, and forgetting in the moment that it their character doesn’t have the same information that they do.
Why Do Tabletop Gamers Dislike Metagamers?
A minimal amount of metagaming isn’t actually a problem. It’s fairly reasonable to design a character that’s well suited to the type of campaign or oneshot that you’re going to be playing (like choosing a thief character for a dungeon dive, since the ability to pick locks and avoid traps will be useful, or a fast talking bard for a political story, since that will probably come in handy there). Or to make a character that would have a great deal of overlap with your knowledge or passions to that you can utilize them to best effectiveness (such as a botanist playing a druid, or a pyrotechnician playing a fire sorcerer).
These are both fine, provided that your DM and party don’t mind. There is a little bit of argument among the community as to how much metagaming is appropriate, and the type of campaign that you’re playing (political, strategic, roleplay, hack’n’slash) will likely have some influence there. Just make sure you check first.
What DMs and fellow players hate is when a player intentionally gathers information ahead of time, and plans their specific playstyle around it, ruining the challenge of the game and making their own character artificially powerful. It ruins the surprise of each encounter, preempts big reveals and cool moments, and throws a wrench into the DMs planning.
Think of it like a videogame RPG. If you read the spoilers and learned that the friendly NPC wide character betrays you in the end, so you simply killed them the moment you met, you wouldn’t get to actually experience the story and it’s fun. And when you play TTRPGs, you aren’t just stopping your own experience, but all the other players’, too.
How to Avoid Metagaming
Since most metagaming is unintentional, the best way to avoid it is to simply be open to your DM telling you “no” sometimes. But if you find yourself slipping into it, there are a few tricks you can use to minimize your metagaming.
Ask If You Know Things
The easiest way to keep track of what you vs. your character knows is to ask the DM. They get final say on things, anyway.
They can quickly tell you “yes, that weakness would be common knowledge” or “no, you know nothing about cheesemaking”, or ask you to make a check to see which it is.
In 5e, this will be either a History or Insight check, while in older editions its more likely to be a Knowledge, Survival, or History check.
Not only will keeping notes ensure that you have easy access to what happened in previous sessions (and get you into your DM’s good graces), but your records will make a pretty good basis for what your party has, and hasn’t encountered, and what bits of information that they’ve picked up.
If you’re the type of party to do your research, it also helps to keep track of the little details that might come in handy later on, so you can rely on those instead of metagaming.
Expect the Unexpected
Usually this means “be prepared for anything”, but in this case I mean just the opposite: If you find something that doesn’t fit the usual expectations, don’t be upset. You might have been prepared for something else, but the abnormal is the norm in fantasy roleplaying – even abnormalities among the fantastical.
Your DM may have made some changes or customizations to monsters and NPCs, whether to minimize metagaming or just to make a more interesting encounter. In cases like this, don’t be surprised, and there’s no reason to feel “cheated” out of your expectations here, and it’s best not to argue with the DM about presenting a ‘wrong’ encounter.
Going with the flow, instead of trying to micromanage your game (especially when the rest of your party wants to play a roleplay campaign instead of strategy), is the best way that you can avoid metagaming.