This article was first broadcast in Episode Sixty-Six on 20th March 2019.
Lennon: No Killer DM today? I figured she’d want to see Ostron since she missed him last time.
Ostron: Oh darn, so sorry about that.
Ryu: She had a problem with the topic
Lennon: Well she was arguing with Mikey about it last time, I thought she had more to say.
Ryu: Yeah…how did she put it?
Killer DM: You keep telling me I’m not supposed to kill people just because they’re wrong, but I refuse to encourage them when they are wrong.
Ostron: Well, actually a lot of people agree with the Killer DM on this one.
Because of the way metagaming is regarded in D&D, there is a pervasive assumption that the DM is unable to do it by definition. After all, if metagaming is introducing elements from outside the game and the DM is the ultimate arbiter of what is and isn’t in the game, they can’t be guilty of metagaming, right?
This is one of those cases where the intent is more important than the strict definition. As we’ve mentioned before, most of the time complaints about metagaming come up in relation to players. They’re either introducing more game elements than the group wants to deal with because of the level of roleplay, or they’re using their knowledge about the game to get an advantage beyond what their character should be aware of.
To be fair to the Killer DM and those who agree with her, it is usually rare for the DM of a game to metagame in the way that ruins roleplaying. Presumably the DM is the one that sets the tone in that regard, so they’re not likely to sabotage their own method of play. It usually only comes up if there are a group of players who are interested in a level of roleplay and they’ve ended up with a DM who isn’t used to operating on that level.
In best case scenarios, the players and the DM will talk about that and try to reach a compromise where the level of roleplay is comfortable for everyone. Worst case, sometimes the players need to search for a new DM.
However, while roleplay-breaking metagaming from the DM is not as common, DMs are fully capable of the other type of metagaming. This is often where people get confused because they think the problem with this kind of metagaming is that a player knows information about an opposing creature that they shouldn’t. In the game, the DM is allowed to know all of the information about everything, so how could they be metagaming?
The key, again, is in the definition of the problem. In reality, it doesn’t matter if the player knows information about the creature or not; the disruptive metagaming occurs when they act on it. The DM can be just as disruptive if they use their knowledge of the player characters to shape the encounters. For example, if the party is playing a curse of Strahd campaign and has a Paladin and Cleric in the party and the DM eliminates all of the undead from the regular encounters so the divine characters’ channel divinity abilities don’t work, that’s metagaming. Or if the party has a fighter, a monk, a barbarian, and a hexblade warlock hunting down a gnoll encampment and all of the enemies they encounter are constantly shooting them from a distance with longbows, that’s also a case of the DM metagaming.
The main thing that gives it away is the DM is shaping encounters with an eye toward defeating the players rather than telling the story. Strahd is supposed to use undead minions; it doesn’t make sense that all of them are absent. Now, he doesn’t *exclusively* use undead minions, and an occasional encounter where they aren’t present makes sense, but eliminating them completely just because the divine casters have an answer to them breaks the story.
Relatedly, gnolls are not known for tactical restraint in the face of imminent combat. The DM is having them behave out of character to avoid letting the player characters get into close combat, where they know the characters excel.
That is DM metagaming; when they’re using their knowledge of the player characters’ strengths or weaknesses to craft encounters and scenarios specifically to counteract them, rather than to create a compelling or coherent story. Some argue that isn’t a problem because it’s something DMs are supposed to do, and to a certain extent that is correct; DMs are supposed to create challenging encounters. But when they do it consistently and the only way they challenge the players is by counteracting their characters’ abilities, it creates a problematic scenario.
The players will eventually catch on to what the DM is doing and one of two things will probably happen; they will either start so-called powergaming or min/maxing their characters in an effort to overcome what the DM is doing, or they will give up on combat or skill encounters all together and will either be resigned or annoyed. The problem is at that point it’s become a game of the DM trying to beat the players, rather than the players playing through the story.
Many DMs will admit that at some point they’ve done this. It’s difficult to resist the temptation when, for example, the party has one-shot your “big boss” creature for the third time in a row. And to be clear, occasionally coming up with an encounter that is tailored to take advantage of the party’s weaknesses is actually a good idea; it can provide a tense scenario and make the players think of creative solutions. Or it can be used in a more focused way to occasionally put the breaks on a character that is outshining everyone else in combat. But the key is that it only happens occasionally and you’re fitting it into the story. As Ostron pointed out, if you’re breaking the story just to beat the characters, then it becomes DM versus players and that will drastically shift the focus of the game.
One constructive way the DM can metagame is, if there’s a recurring villain the characters are combating, that villain might be more adept at creating situations that specifically counter the players. In-game, they would be studying the characters and their capabilities to come up with the monsters or traps to stymie the expertise of the group. After all, some of the most compelling superhero stories center around a villain or group of villains that pinpoint a hero’s weakness and exploit it.
Some groups actually prefer having a player vs DM environment, and if that’s your cup of tea that’s fine. But many D&D groups will agree that isn’t the main thing they’re looking to get out of their games. So check your own motivations when you’re designing an encounter and pay attention to how your players are reacting to your encounters to make sure you aren’t metagaming.
Ostron: You think the Killer DM will have anything to say about that?
Sound of running water turning into flooding
Ryu: She’s usually not shy about providing feedback… by the way, can anyone hear, like, running water or is it just me?
Ostron: Why are the bottoms of my shoes getting wet?
Lennon: Oh Umberlee’s Wellingtons! The Scrying Pool’s flooding! Looks like our listeners weren’t shy about feedback this week either!