The Mysteries of Metagaming
As we approached the first troll of the campaign, I anticipated that were were going to have this discussion.
It’s 5th edition D&D and none of us, to my knowledge, have encountered a troll in the new system. However, we all know by now that the regenerative abilities of the Troll are legendary and horrible and punishing for those who assume that dead is dead. Unsurprisingly, the players imported out of game knowledge to ready against the rise of the troll, lighting torches and oil, and the debate started.
“I spend a ki point to trigger my defensive ability…I’m not trusting that shit,” the Monk said as the troll went down.
“Two things,” I said, “One, you know nothing of trolls, and two, you’re like 30 feet away, and you’re going to waste a ki point… so don’t for either of those two reasons.”
“Certainly,” the Wizard said, “We’ve heard something about trolls. I’m a scholar if nothing else.”
“Maybe,” I allowed, “but there’s lots of horrible creatures out there, trolls included. Make some rolls and I’ll give you some wives tales and things.
Party rolled with less than amazing results, but indeterminate.
“You’ve all heard a story about an old woman who captured a troll and cut off its head, then kept the head in a basket. The troll would then tell her secrets, and she used it to get out of a variety of challenges and marry well and live happily ever after.”
“Good enough for me, light it up” someone said. Burning starts.
Hmph, I thought. “Isn’t anyone going to get the head?”
“I am not taking this things head in a basket.” the paladin said.
And that was that. I was a little disappointed, as an evil GM, that I couldn’t get the players on this old surprise, even if we were all fully aware of the trick. Did it diminish their fun? I don’t think so. Did it diminish mine? Only slightly. But overall, it seemed bad form from what I consider to be a group of truly excellent gamers. That said, I feel confident I would have done the same thing in their shoes. So what do we do, as gamers, with the knowledge of metagaming and the desire to metagame, and perhaps even the need in some cases to metagame?
Wikipedia defines Metagaming 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. Another definition refers to the game universe outside of the game itself..
Now before you think I’m living comfortably in my glass house, I do this too and am not trying to throw stones. We ALL do this to some greater or lesser degree. Whether it’s using tactics that your 1st level character wouldn’t use, or not running when attacked by goblins for the first time, or picking spells based on your experience as a gamer as to how useful they are. If we didn’t metagame at all, most of our characters might end up returning to their farming and sheepherding responsibilities after the immediate crisis had passed, and tell the same story at the local inn every Godsday about the time they went down to the old Moathouse and tangled with a couple humanoids.
So what do you do about it? First, you have to know what form of metagaming you have, and then identify whether its a problem that you need to remedy, or if you even want to. Metagaming has a certain utility that might just have a place in some games. This is me playing devil’s advocate with myself to some extent, but let’s play this out for a minute.
I’ve identified the most common types of metagaming that I encounter on a day to day basis:
- FLOATING HEADS – This is where you offer friendly advice to another player on how to run their character or communicate your in-game desires to them out of game. Your head floats off its shoulders, whispers in their ear, and floats back, so to speak.
- PRO’s: This keeps the action on point, makes the play most effective, avoids general murder, clarifies miscommunication due to the abstraction of the setting, and occasionally reminds a player to act more in line with the way their character might actually respond, rather than what a less skilled or confused player might do under the circumstances.
- CON’s: Leads to kibitzing and breaks the game. You have to have some faith that a player knows how to run their character, and the imperfection of communication on a battlefield is a core issue in general for those involved in combat. Further, spells like Rary’s Telepathic Bond allow for players to communicate in their heads with little other benefit, and this is a 5th LEVEL SPELL. To do it with impunity without the benefit of the spell essentially negates its usefulness.
- FINAL VERDICT: Should be kept to a minimum, to address player confusion rather than to advise, instruct, or exhort.
REVISIONIST HISTORY – As illustrated above, a plan or course of action is reversed after one or more active steps are taken to complete the initial task, only for the action to be withdrawn or reversed one or more steps to apply the corrective action
- PRO’s – Often in a game, the order of actions is unclear, and polite society frowns on interrupting or shouting over other people talking. Often, the loudest, most quick witted, or most ridiculous player leaps into action while other players who may be playing quicker, smarter, or more clever characters might not articulate their actions first, and the GM rule that they are too late to stop Mr. Dwarf Smash from axing the door. That’s not fair, is it?
- CONS – People do dumb things, and so do their characters. Half the fun is watching players and characters make mistakes with deadly or hilarious consequences. Sometimes its allowable, or initiative needs to be rolled, but players often want to rewind events back too far, and gain out of game knowledge of the consequences by doing so. It slows down the game and confuses everthing.
- FINAL VERDICT: We use a rule at our table that you can back up most actions until a die is rolled. Then, the action locks in. I would say too that if the players discovered something, like a trap, that they would not have known, it’s too late as well. You have to be careful in looking at this, however, as the crazy barbarian shouting “I smash in the door” should be interpreted as saying, “I want to smash in the door” and a few seconds pass before it happens. Louder does not mean faster.
OUT OF GAME KNOWLEDGE – Using personal knowledge of the rules, books, and statistics out of game to affect the actions of a character in game.
- PROS: It’s unavoidable to some extent, but sometimes allows the players to have more fun. It keeps the game master in check when the rules are bent or broken. Can create some appreciation for the nuance of a clever build/trap/spell combination. It’s also very hard to relearn everything in game in every campaign you ever play in.
- CONS: Changes the flow of the storytelling and arguably breaks the game. Creates situations where player characters act in discord with their experience. Especially dangerous, however, for Game Masters who use strengths and weaknesses of characters against them when monsters may have not subjective knowledge of those weaknesses. This would also encapsulate excellent GM tactics where monsters may not be operating at that level.
- FINAL VERDICT – This is the toughest to avoid and also perhaps the most onerous at the same time. It is perhaps the worst, however, on the GM side, where stupid monsters fight with tactics and knowledge that is not properly afforded them. I have felt the urge to avoid targeting a player with a spell that he is warded against, but feel good about myself when I do it anyway. Typically a nod to this sort of learning curve can help bring the game into technical compliance with the spirit of the game itself. (i.e. He takes a swing, and his best blow clatters off your armor. He knows he’ll never penetrate it and moves on to an easier target, etc. etc.)
Does Metagaming have a place at your table? It’s already there, I can almost guarantee it. There are a few pointers I can offer as I’ve seen them used in the past:
- Change Things– Book knowledge is useless when a monster’s appearance changes slightly. A friend terrified us by making kobolds appear to be tiny red-skinned devils. We actually fled. A little twist can keep things interesting, and is used to great effect in Dungeon Crawl Classics. You never know what’s going to happen there.
- 6 Word Maximum – Players get six words each round of combat to communicate, even off their turn. Kind of fun to limit yourself, and keeps it brief. Limitations of sound travelling through stone still applies.
- Attribute Checks – If a player is about to botch it, like not check for traps when a talented theif is in the party, a roll may be suggested or required as long as not too much has happened in reliance on that action. Intelligence or Wisdom Checks, or Charisma checks by other players to get the acting player to stop and listen. Initiative in worst case scenarios. Let the dice then fall where they may, and always freeze the action once a roll has determined success or failure.
- Caller – Grognards will remember that the game originally had a position called the “Caller” who would take the assembled players (usually about 10 in those days) and once the plan was digested, would call out to the GM what they would do. When things get confusing, I still use this, and it is amazingly helpful. Try it when things get crazy. Old Gary knew a thing or two about what he was doing, so lets give him the benefit of the doubt.
As always, we love to hear what your suggestions might be. Look forward to your comments.