A phrase commonly heard during tabletop games is metagaming. Metagaming is described as, “any strategy, action or method used in a game which transcends a prescribed ruleset, uses external factors to affect the game, or goes beyond the supposed limits or environment set by the game.” In roleplay games this is usually associated with using out-of-character knowledge to make in-character decisions. This can present dangers at the table as it puts strain on the relationship between the players and the GM and can also create conflict between players if some are trying to play without metagaming while others are.
Metagaming comes in two usual flavors at the table. The first is roleplay decisions. If a player knows about the history of the world you are playing in then they might use that to make character decisions that make little sense. If you are playing in Middle-Earth from Lord of the Rings and a player decides that the party should head to the Mines of Moria because all the dwarves are dead, leaving plenty of loot behind, and when they get there knowing what to say at the door because it was said in the movie, not because their character can read the inscriptions. This is an example of metagaming using knowledge outside of the game to make decisions in it. This is also an example of out-of-character knowledge vs. in-character knowledge.
The second flavor of metagaming is mechanical. This is when a player uses knowledge of the system and rules to make character decisions, especially during combat. An example is if a group is playing Tephra and they know the enemy has a specialty that allows them to do additional damage when adjacent to their target. So the players all take a specialty that prevents any enemy from becoming adjacent to them. This is making a decision that makes little sense for the character and is not aimed at growing the character’s abilities in a fun and interesting way but rather to specifically handicap the GM when they attempt to use their enemy. This can be especially frustrating if the enemy is the final boss and the players were told about the enemy’s abilities by the GM who was excited to share their cool new villain. This leads to the tensions that can arise between GM and players.
The GM is there to make an interesting story and an appropriate challenge for the players. When the players begin metagaming then it becomes less about experiencing a story with the characters and more about defeating the GM in a board game. This can cause stress for the GM who might have had an interesting story for the group and can become frustrating for the players who are not interested in metagaming against the GM. Some players are much more focused on the story and their characters’ experiences than they are on the mechanics and gameplay. For these players the metagamer can annoy them and also feel like they have an unfair advantage through cheating. Players should make sure to keep in mind the limitations of their characters and should listen to the GM if the GM tells them it doesn’t make sense for their character to do something or that something sounds out-of-character for them. GMs should make sure the players are well aware of what their characters know in comparison to themselves.
Despite all of this, metagaming is not all bad. Many campaigns have a session zero dedicated to creating the characters the players will use. During this time it is often helpful for the players to metagame a bit as they work to make sure their characters are compatible with each other and have skill sets that compliment one another. They can also use this metagame knowledge to decide on their roles such as who will be the tank of the party and who will be the face. This prevents the players accidentally creating a party of all tanks who deal little damage but never die, which would result in drawn out battles and no one being able to talk for the group. Metagaming, when used correctly, helps to ensure every member of a party is valued and that they can work well together.
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