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How Much Metagaming is Too Much?

Posted By Martin Ralya On December 4, 2009 @ 2:24 am In GMing Advice | 16 Comments

There are lots of ways to metagame, including:

  • Using out-of-character knowledge for your in-character benefit, generally regarded as a bad thing
  • Discussing mechanics during a session, which runs the gamut from useful and fun to a terrible idea
  • Considering the rules in a way that your character probably wouldn’t, which I consider to be common to most RPGs, and often just fine
  • Sharing mechanical tips with other players, a real mixed bag — acceptable in some games and groups, but not in others
  • Maximizing mechanical benefits, even when that contradicts how your character “should” be played, which is sometimes unavoidable

And of course, all metagaming discussion is fundamentally a discussion about players: as the GM, you can metagame, but so much of your job is metagaming that instances where you doing are unacceptable are few and far between.

If you’re a big jerk and use your rules mastery to take advantage of your players, playing NPCs in ways that just don’t make any sense as a result, that’s a bad thing — but setting aside bad GMs and bad GMing practices, metagaming behind the screen is quite different from metagaming on the other side of it.

One thing I’ve noticed is that metagaming is much more acceptable in some RPGs than others — D&D, for example. It’s hard not to metagame in 4e, since the game is so tactical and minis-focused that it almost demands a level of metagaming.

Which begs the question: Is the definition of metagaming different for some RPGs than others? And the follow-up: Is “bad metagaming” also defined largely by the game in which it takes place, with a behavior that would qualify as bad metagaming in one game being A-OK in another? (I say yes to both.)

And: The other big component of what sorts of metagaming are considered acceptable is your group — what flies in some groups won’t fly in others. I’d argue that those two components — RPG and group — are the basic elements of setting boundaries with regard to metagaming, including what’s acceptable and what isn’t. But are there other components?

Whatever you consider metagaming, and regardless of how you look upon it based on your group, game of choice, and situation, there has to be a line in there somewhere — a line beyond which you’re always going to say, “Hey, that’s not cool.” Where is that line?

And when it’s crossed, how do you broach it with your players?

About  Martin Ralya

A father, husband, writer, small-press publisher, former RPG industry freelancer, and lifelong geek, Martin has been gaming since 1987 and GMing since 1989. He lives in Utah with his amazing wife Alysia and their awesome daughter Lark in a house full of books and games.




16 Comments (Open | Close)

16 Comments To "How Much Metagaming is Too Much?"

#1 Comment By doomdreamer On December 4, 2009 @ 7:32 am

Its difficult not too. Especially if you switch from one side of the screen to another. It would be difficult to know an enemy can immolate everyone adjacent to it at will, and then charge blindly into it. Especially if the consequences of poor tactics can be devastating. I agree that game really changes what level of metagaming takes place. When in D&D you have to be a highly specialized SWAT team to take out some encounters, you may need a bit of Divine Guidance.

But if you step back from the situation, realize that metagaming will take place, you can rationalize it to not feel so out of place. Maybe all that “divine guidance” is why the PCs are so special. And perhaps you as a GM can reward some of the foresight while making the game and its denizens harder to decipher.

#2 Comment By Troy E. Taylor On December 4, 2009 @ 8:29 am

Are you prying open the lid on the edition wars with this question? For many in the 3.5 crowd, this is THE breaking point over 4E — which is generally a viewpoint that …

Even though 4E is so tactically based, and much fun can/could be derived from it (if you’re into that stuff), it’s the necessity of so much rules discussion during play that separates its from past editions, from “real D&D.” The requirement of rules discussions become hurdles to immersion-style play.

While I think that’s true, to a certain point, I don’t think 3E is immune to those kind of rules-discussion stops, either. It’s just that after 10 years or so of playing 3.5, a very strong, very 2E-style of immersion/story based play has been laid over the rulesset by the 3.5 faithful (steered by published adventures from editors such as Chris Youngs (then Thomasson), James Jacobs and Wolfgang Baur) so that there is an EXPECTATION that 3.5 adventures are less rulesy.

What’s more important than any of that, though, is your point about what’s appropriate for YOUR OWN GROUP.

In my experience, GMs that present rules-based puzzles and obstacles invite more game table meta discussions. When it takes Player A’s special ability plus Player’s B skill check plus Player C’s spell to resolve a problem, then you’ve opened the doors to the players to apply that kind of thinking to other aspects of the game.

GMs that stick to story cues are going to have less of that.

The gut check comes in how a GM handles combat. I’d say a GM has to evaluate how they run combat, look back and see how encounters are presented to their players, then ask themselves: Am I inviting meta-game discussions by the kinds of scenarios I’m presenting?

I think that GMs of ANY EDITION would discover the cue for generating more or fewer in-game meta-discussions are coming from themselves, rather than being instigated from the players. New players might bring in styles from other groups, but in established groups, I really think it’s GMs who set the tone, one way or the other.

#3 Comment By drow On December 4, 2009 @ 10:14 am

no no, no edition wars. yeesh. don’t make me break out the gnome-mulcher.

metagaming, in my experience, is much more a function of group than system. personally, i’m fine with anything short of spending five minutes arguing a rule interpretation, or the DM googling for why a particular power is broken in the middle of not just a game, but an actual melee.

#4 Comment By Patrick Benson On December 4, 2009 @ 10:34 am

Metagaming is one of those BS issues that I really can’t stand. Whether or not metagaming is good or bad is irrelevant. System and metagaming is irrelavent. The only thing that matters in this case is how the participants perceive and react to how each other plays the game.

Whenever there is a “metagaming argument” in a group it seems to boil down to “I don’t like how you play the game. You should play it like I play it, because my way is more fun.”

Instead of putting up a facade of “Let’s discuss the metagaming.” I prefer to say “Why are we not getting along here?” Treating it as a metagaming issue makes it sound like a rules issue, but treating it as what it really is (a social issue) has worked very well for me with various groups.

#5 Comment By Tyson J. Hayes On December 4, 2009 @ 12:12 pm

@Troy E. Taylor – You make a point I hadn’t considered. Have you had some success in solving any “metagaming” problems with this method?

@Patrick Benson – The thinking of solving a puzzle by using special abilities/feats/skills tends to be my line of thinking when creating puzzles. Do you have a different way of building puzzles that solicits less metagaming thinking?

#6 Comment By Scott Martin On December 4, 2009 @ 12:43 pm

How much metagaming is acceptable is very much a group and game specific thing. My line is pretty far out, generally– I don’t mind discussing tactics out of character (like “if you instead super-leaped to the left, I could blast em without flattening you”), though it’s definitely a season to taste thing.

More complex systems seem to encourage more OOC discussion– if only because the hive-mind is more likely to pick up what you’re missing. In simple systems, you might have the same mechanical effect no matter what you do– so go crazy making it sound awesome.

As the GM, there’s essentially no limit to the amount of meta-gaming you do– it’s part of the job. If you’re exploring a character’s invulnerability and what it means to them, you’ll take that power into mind when you’re crafting the adventure, and when you’re running that encounter.

#7 Comment By michaelkatz On December 4, 2009 @ 2:22 pm

That was a good list of metagaming activities, although I wish you separated the types of metagaming from your personal judgments in the list. What you have I think of as two categories: the player’s game knowledge and mechanics. There probably should be a spot for the general player knowledge; I’d like to differentiate knowing “your party-mate is injured in a different room” from general knowledge of science or mythology that the player might have and not the character.

One of the things I really enjoy is the tactical aspects of 4e, so rules/mechanics metagaming doesn’t bother me, other than the sheer amount that has to be done. In less rules-heavy systems it’s less of a problem.

The bigger problems for me come from discussing game-events as a player instead of as the character. I do this because I’m excited about the plot and want things to turn out well for the party. The hard part is then stepping back and making sure my character acts appropriately to his personality and with the knowledge he has.

There’s not a much a GM can do in the latter case because you want to tell someone how their character should act. I’d like to hear more from @Troy about how presents combats to the players to keep the game moving in a non-metagamey way.

Thanks for all the stuff to think about.

#8 Comment By Troy E. Taylor On December 4, 2009 @ 2:30 pm

@Tyson J. Hayes – If you use miniature combat in either 3E or 4E, you’re going to have a certain level of tactical, game-y talk at the table. I think my players do a good job of minimizing that by incorporating “flavor” text going into rules exposition.

IN some ways, especially the flavor text that accompanies every 4E ability entry, you are, essentially, using a shorthand for the mechanical talk. “My player does X” really means “I get to roll 2d8 and add my Dex modifier.” As rules competency grows, so does the flavor vocabulary.

I also think my group has a good ON/OFF switch. That is for us, I think there can be an acceptable amount of mega-game chatter within combat, but that switches over to nearly nil once combat is over.

Metagaming seems to crop up more when characters are trying to figure out how — as teammates — best to direct each the actions of others around the table. When players limit game-y descriptions to their own character’s actions; but stay in character when talking to others around the table, it helps. So, a PC might ask another player for help or to take a certain action. So, instead of having a PC say to another: “Your fireball does 1d6 points of fire damage per caster level, so when I move my character 5 squares left you throw that at the monster, which should reduce its hit points in half” you should say instead, “Let me get clear before you burn this thing!” and then move the mini to demonstrate how your character is moving out of way in anticipation of a fireball.

#9 Comment By Troy E. Taylor On December 4, 2009 @ 3:06 pm

@michaelkatz – A good starting point is to excise all the game-y monster descriptions from the GM’s vocabulary. Just don’t use terms such as artillery, brute, controller, lurker, skirmisher (well, maybe skirmisher, in a generic sense), soldier, elite, solo or minion from a description. Take care even using monster names. As far as the players are concerned, they see “a fierce bugbear advancing like a force of nature, yowling and waving its flail” rather than a “Bugbear Wardancer.” You’ll never truly get away from reporting dice rolls — numbers are just part of the game. Attentive players are going to be able to figure out target scores, such as Armor Class numbers to beat. But if the players agree that announcing their deductions out loud is bad form, you can get away from observations like “It looks like the monster has an AC of 17.” But if an AC is so high only a Natural 20 can hit, don’t say “We can’t beat this AC,” just say “We’re not hitting it, we should retreat/try something else.” I think little things like that go a long way, and if you’re already doing that, then I’d say you’ve gone a long way to minimizing the gamey aspects of D&D.

#10 Pingback By Metagaming at the table « Mike's D&D Blog On December 4, 2009 @ 4:02 pm

[…] and responded to a post by Martin Ralya (follow him on twitter @martinralya). This post entitled How Much Metagaming Is Too Much? asks pretty much what you think it does, how much meta gaming should there be at the table and when […]

#11 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On December 4, 2009 @ 4:25 pm

Your right to metagame extends only as far as my verisimilitude. (Yeah, I used ‘the V word’.)

I’m not going to get involved with the Edition Wars, except to say that one’s system of choice is a clear signal to the players as to what kind of game you’re running.

Me? I play Savage Worlds; why do you ask? ;)

#12 Pingback By Friday Links, December 4, 2009 | Moebius Adventures On December 4, 2009 @ 6:16 pm

[…] How Much Metagaming is Too Much? (gnomestew.com) […]

#13 Comment By Martin Ralya On December 4, 2009 @ 8:53 pm

@doomdreamer – Both solid points — and I hadn’t considered how being a GM who also plays as a player would affect things.

@Troy E. Taylor – Huh. No, I wasn’t thinking about edition wars; I don’t play that game.

But now that you mention it, I talk about rules constantly in 4e both during and between games; did so mostly between games in 3.xe; and rarely did so at all except at the outset of a campaign in 2e. That’s pretty telling.

And I agree that the GM sets the tone — or if she doesn’t set it right off the bat, can assert the tone at a later time.

@Patrick Benson – I don’t agree that it’s entirely a social issue, but I do see where you’re coming from. Interesting angle!

For example: Whether I’m OK with metagaming as a player depends in large part on the game and the group vibe, and less on my personal preferences. There are games where I’ll metagame right along with you, and others where your doing so will drive me batshit.

@michaelkatz – I included my opinion up top as a kind of shorthand — this was a pretty shoot-from-the-hip article. Good point, though; I should probably have opined later on.

#14 Comment By Sarlax On December 4, 2009 @ 11:16 pm

I think a review of what metagaming is might be helpful. I’d elaborate on the definition in the glossary and say that metagaming is altering the appropriate behavior of a character based on the knowledge possessed by the player that she is playing a game. The altered behavior can result from out of character knowledge or game awareness.

OOC Example: A PC has an origin as an ignorant farmer with no knowledge of the magical world beyond his lands. On his first adventure, he spots an eight-legged reptile. He announces, “I’m going to tie a blindfold around my eyes before getting closer.” Why? Because the player assumes it’s a basilisk, even though his character cannot know this.

Game Awareness Example: A low level party wanders through mountains and encounters an ancient red dragon. In deciding whether to flee, hide, parlay, or fight, one player suggests that the group should fight, since the dragon is either weaker than it looks, or there’s some way to cripple it before the fight begins, because an ancient dragon is too challenging for the party. In this case, the player assumes that because she is *playing a game* that there are certain conventions (perhaps unspoken) which won’t be broken – one of which is that the players won’t be made to fight an invincible foe.

Now, there are things which, for some reason, are considered as metagaming but shouldn’t be. Rules discussion, for instance. I know I’m probably in the minority here, but I think working out the rules is often perfectly reasonable *and* in keeping with the game world.

An example is players discussing how to position PCs among monsters for maximum effect, such as to flank or leave charging spaces open for allies. You might here phrases, “Be sure to flank and get your +2,” but doesn’t the end effect represent what actually would happen in the game world? Professional warriors *know* that attacking an enemy from opposite sides is the better tactic.

Having this rules discussion serves to remind the players of knowledge that their PCs actually do have. Thinking through the rules in a case like this isn’t different than taking a moment to think about what one’s PC would say in a social scene.

#15 Comment By Martin Ralya On December 5, 2009 @ 10:43 am

@Sarlax – That’s a fantastic and functional definition. What about metagaming that makes your character’s behavior more appropriate, not less?

The example you used was rules discussion from your perspective, but might be metagaming from someone else’s perspective — but either way, in most situations a warrior PC taking better advantage of positioning is more appropriate, not less.

And just to pose one of the trickiest questions involving metagaming: Who decides what PC behavior is appropriate?

#16 Comment By zozeer On December 6, 2009 @ 12:50 pm

@Sarlax – That about sums it up.

@Martin – That bit is tough. I say the GM is the arbiter of when metagaming is across the line. Perhaps a note should be added to the social contract (I have to agree with Patrick in that this is a mostly social issue.).

I have a house rule that if a player running a character that has no way to id a monster does, its HP doubles and I might(read: will likely) add nasty ability’s.

As a side note. Running exclusively home brew monsters cuts down on this dramatically as when the players encounter the ash-gray boulbus ichor-leaking critters for the umpteenth time they have a good reason to know that they are hell spawn and to keep their eyes open for the lurking den mother…


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