This article was first broadcast in Episode Sixty-Five on 13th March 2019.
Killer DM: and you, and you, and definitely you-
Lennon: Dare I ask what you’re doing?
Killer DM: Since we were talking about metagaming players last week, I figured I’d review my list of the ones I need to…talk with.
Mikey: How long do those conversations take?
Killer DM: Depends on how proficient they are at dexterity saves. Oh, hi Mikey, glad to see they let you out of the cave again — I do like the way you make me sound…
Lennon: Just so we’re on the same page, you do know this is going to talk about how players can stop derailing the game with metagaming, right?
Killer DM: I’m well aware of the goal here, Lennon, Ryu does keep me well informed. And if she doesn’t I can always bother Ostron about what’s happening.
Mikey: Wait, is that why he’s not here? What do you mean by “bother?”
Killer DM: Lennon, just get going on this, will you?
Lennon: Here goes.
So last time we covered a basic definition of metagaming. At a simple level, it just means someone is calling out or highlighting information that focuses on D&D being a game. In most cases, when this happens, it’s a player revealing information they know from previously reading it in a sourcebook that the DM or another player are using when they play.
As a simple example of a player metagaming for another player: if one player tells the person with the wizard character “You should cast Hold Person on them so we can all get advantage on our melee attacks.”
Now this example is worth discussing because while it is strictly metagaming based on the player mentioning getting advantage on attacks, it’s a borderline case that wouldn’t raise eyebrows at a lot of tables. One could argue that the character of the speaking player wouldn’t know what Hold Person was, but on the other hand if they’ve been travelling for a while the other character is probably aware of the spells the wizard has in their repertoire and what the general effect of those spells are. The problem, again, is the use of ‘advantage’.
That brings us to our first general tip for players; if you’re talking about game knowledge, try to avoid using mechanical terms unless you have no other choice. Even if the table isn’t involved in heavy roleplaying, less talk about game terms will help keep things in the narrative flow.
KDM: But look, I don’t always care about that; if characters want to blab about AC and hit points it doesn’t matter to me. What makes me fire up a 6th level spell slot and find a broom is when players are metagaming to get around something I’m doing. So if I want the players to have a tough time fighting a troll because of its regeneration and the player whose character is a paladin from a noble background that spent most of his life in the desert suddenly starts telling everyone to light it on fire, my first instinct is going to be to set them on fire.
What annoys the KillerDM there is that the player’s character didn’t have a legitimate reason to know about the troll’s regeneration being cancelled by fire damage off the top of their head. If the character had been a hermit who lived in swamps it’s more plausible they might be familiar with trolls, but KayDee is probably going to want an Intelligence check of some kind before the character would be allowed to share that knowledge around.
Mikey: So, you’re okay with Lennon using that nickname now?
Killer DM: Oh not even a little bit, but… I suppose it’s the accent, it gets him a pass on a lot of things. But don’t tempt me.
In general, skill checks are a good way to get around metagaming restrictions. If you know something that your character wouldn’t necessarily be aware of, ask your DM if you would be able make a check such as Nature or Arcana, to check if your character could recall hearing that one fact somewhere sometime, such as overhearing it in a tavern. If you roll well enough, the DM might tell everyone the information you already know, or they’ll allow you to share it.
Killer DM: But a good way to get back on my bad side is to make it plain that you know something you aren’t supposed to know. Saying “I know that thing about this monster, can I make a check to tell everyone?” really ruins things. Even if you fail whatever check I impose, the other characters will know something is up, and I’ll be watching you from then on because you’ll probably try to take advantage of it. It’s annoying, and it ruins my fun.
On the other hand, if you don’t blurt out that you’re trying to use the game mechanics to spoil my surprise, fail the check to recall the knowledge, but still do things as your character to take advantage of your knowledge, I might let that slide. I appreciate a good underhanded trick as much as anyone but not all DMs are like me, so your mileage may vary on this one.
What we’ve covered here are the two major ways that metagaming causes issues; either it’s sabotaging roleplaying or you’re using it to prematurely figure out something the DM is doing or leading up to. How much either of those is going to upset the game can vary widely from game to game. If your game is a straight up dungeon crawl 90% of the time and most of the discussion from the DM uses game terms, they may not mind so much if you start discussing people’s hit points, spell slots, and what the monsters are likely vulnerable to.
On the other hand, if everyone is making a point to describe their actions in combat with cinematic details and numbers are only brought up when absolutely necessary, you probably want to steer clear of calling out information you read in a sourcebook, and possibly beef up your intelligence modifier if you’re hoping to share what you know.
Lennon: You sure you’re not disappointed?
Killer DM: Oh come now, this is great. Now I have a set of things I can point to when players metagame inappropriately. It’s so much more satisfying to point out what they could have done instead while they’re being punished.
Mikey: So what happens when you metagame.
Killer DM: I’m sorry, what?
Mikey: When you metagame, as the DM.
Killer DM: That’s not possible.
Mikey: It really is.
Killer DM: Mikey… What is your blood type anyway? Do you have healthy kidneys?
Lennon: Okay, we’ll come back to this,
Mikey: I’d rather go back to the cave!
Lennon: …but right now we have to go over to the Scrying Pool to see what the listeners have to say.