This article was first broadcast in Episode Sixty-Four on 6th March 2019.
Ostron: Oh come on! This should be working!
Lennon: Did you de-power an artifact in the workshop again?
Ostron: No. I’m trying to configure the Realized Oikumenata-
Ryu: You know it’s easier to just say ROSTRO.
Ostron: Oh…huh. Never thought of that. Good point.
Lennon: What do you mean you never though-…okay never mind. What were you trying to make the scary math machine do?
Ostron: I was trying to configure it to detect metagaming and it keeps saying the parameters are invalid.
Ryu: Well I swore I’d never agree with that thing but I think it’s right this time.
Ostron: Well how do you guys pick out metagaming.
Lennon: That’s complicated.
Metagaming is one of those topics that tends to split the D&D community like psionics, 4th edition, and Warlocks.
Ryu: Again, Warlocks are not controversial unless *you’re* in the room.
Anyway, as soon as you mention metagaming in a room of experienced D&D players, you’re likely to see a variety of different opinions. First the arguments are likely to focus on whether or not metagaming is bad, and then there’s going to be further debate on what metagaming actually is. We’re going to briefly cover what metagaming is and why it can be problematic.
First of all, it helps to begin with a standard definition. Websters isn’t helpful in this case so we decided to rely on Wikipedia. Their definitions states that metagaming is:
“any approach to a game that transcends or operates outside of the prescribed rules of the game; uses external factors to affect the game; or goes beyond the supposed limits or environment set by the game.”
Now with video games and some more static tabletop games, metagaming is easy to define. For example, knowing the best way to counter an opponent’s cards in Magic: The Gathering, by studying other people’s research. In many games that not only isn’t a bad thing; it’s actually encouraged so that competition becomes more balanced.
However, in most cases those games are directly competitive and fairly static in the gameplay and goals. D&D and most RPGs aren’t necessarily competitive; they’re narrative; the ultimate idea for most games is to have the players live a story the DM is guiding them through. Metagaming can become a problem in some cases because it highlights the fact that a game is being played, rather than a story being told.
The most common example of metagaming in D&D is when a creature is known to the players. Let’s say for example that a group of adventurers comes under attack by a bunch of kobolds. One of the players immediately tells the others that the kobolds have a low AC, they need to lure them into the sun because they’ll have disadvantage on their attacks, and they have pack tactics, so make sure you don’t get surrounded. Another prominent example in D&D is when players encounter a troll and immediately start breaking out the fire spells.
That example is pretty much textbook metagaming: everything said is highlighting the fact that a game is being played and presents gamified versions of information about the opponents.
Arguments about “what is metagaming” don’t really crop up for cases like Ostron just covered, but when the situation is more nuanced, there can be questions. For example, let’s say characters are walking through a forest and suddenly come upon a swamp with a lot of spider activity. Anyone who’s studied the monster manual entry about black dragons will recognize those are signs of an older black dragon making its lair nearby.
If said knowledgeable player mentions that, there are legitimate arguments either way about it being metagaming. It is information that comes from the monster entry, and it’s possible the character would have no way of knowing that. If both of those are true, it’s probably metagaming. However, the information the player knows is in-game lore; that information does exist in the game world, so if a character blurted it out their companions wouldn’t assume they’re speaking nonsense.
The arguments get more convoluted as examples get more nuanced, but the reality is most people don’t focus on whether something’s metagaming unless it causes a problem, which brings us to our next issue: is metagaming actually a bad thing? Fear not, we at Heroes’ Rise have the definitive answer on the subject. That answer is: it depends.
See, metagaming in competitive games is usually used to gain and advantage or dictate a strategy, thereby leading to you or your team winning. Metagaming can be used for the same purpose in D&D, but a lot of players see that as defeating the purpose because they don’t think D&D is a game you can win or lose; it’s a story being played out.
But again, that’s a subjective opinion. Some players only enjoy playing D&D if they’re able to defeat every monster encounter and succeed at every skill check. They’re going to see metagaming as an asset; how are the players supposed to beat all the challenges and encounters unless they tailor their approach based on the best way to counter whatever the monsters or environment can do?
But other players would rather experience an organic story. They want to have things play out and see what the results of failure are, and while they’re obviously playing a game to accomplish that, they’d rather not be reminded of it unless absolutely necessary. For those players metagaming is massively immersion-breaking and they would rather see it rebuked and eliminated at every opportunity.
Ryu: Now there is a lot more to unpack about this subject and I know someone who’s really interested in talking about metagaming players.
Lennon: Oh come on; we don’t have enough diamonds for that many resurrections. And how do you have the hat AGAIN!?
Killer DM: Oh do you really think I’d leave enough around for a Cleric to resurrect? Now, let’s go over what players have to do to get in my disintegration queue.
Ostron: Unfortunately it’s a pretty big subject, so we’re going to have to put that off until next week. After all, we’ve got the Scrying Pool to check.
Killer DM: Ostron, I like teasing in certain situations, but this is not one of them. Fine, go put your floaties on and pretend to be popular, I’ll be waiting… don’t test my patience.