Metagaming is one of those words that hovers around role playing games (RPG). I’ve overheard it used to describe cheating for one game, and enhancing the experience of another.
The definitions for it seem to vary, and so does the subsequent debate that it sparks. By definition it’s actually quite simple, metagaming is the use of out of game knowledge to drive the actions of your characters. So for example, if you as a player just happen to know that the monster you’re fighting takes extra damage from fire, naturally you’d chose a fire based attack for your character to use – even if your character is only seeing this type of monster for the first time. It’s far from uncommon, but there’s a lot of debate around whether or not metagaming can be used for good, or if it should always be considered cheating. After all, you’re using knowledge the character doesn’t have to tip the scales in your favor. Except, what about situations where metagaming can be applied to other uses?
Personally, I think there are a lot of good uses for some well-placed metagaming, especially from the perspective of a game master (GM). As an experienced role player, with over a decade of regular gaming under my belt, I can tell you without a shadow of a doubt that completely eliminating metagaming is both impossible and actually detrimental to your game. Not only is it a surprisingly nefarious little phenomenon that often passes under the radar unnoticed, it’s also a useful tool (in the right hands) for expanding and improving the game experience.
Sure, like anything metagaming can be used for evil. I’ve sat at a table with unabashed metagamers, gritting my teeth as I remind them that their characters couldn’t possibly know what they’re claiming. I’ve also roleplayed out an entire scene before realizing that the conflict it was based on shouldn’t exist (because the characters my friend and I were playing didn’t actually know the detail they were fighting about). Boiled down to it’s raw elements, we’re a bunch of people sitting around a table, pretending to be other people with their own unique thoughts and experiences. You can’t just turn off your own thoughts and operate solely as the character you’re playing – it’s unrealistic to expect that. Things get muddled, especially for a group like mine where we juggle multiple games at a time, and sometimes multiple characters per game. Though there will always be people who try to bend the rules to their advantage, there are also a million uses for the concept of metagaming that actually help pace games more smoothly, or even enhance the plot and story.
For example, the most common form of metagaming I see happens when parties split up in game. Since everyone is still sitting at a table together, we all still get to hear and see what’s happening ahead of us. Even though my character might be three rooms back in the dungeon, I can still see what lies ahead. I can still hear the GM calling for spot checks, searches or knowledge rolls. In a lot of gaming groups it’s widely acceptable to make those checks, even if you’re character hasn’t moved into the appropriate range to make them. By definition, this is still metagaming, but certainly doesn’t fall under the same scrutiny. The reasoning behind this is that this form of metagaming benefits the game, To repeat descriptions and skill checks for every character as they enter a room impedes game flow. It's already a task and a half to get through any tabletop session in a reasonable amount of time, but by operating under the assumption that characters are actively communicating, you can easily justify this time saving practice. This is what I call ‘benevolent metagaming’: using a bit of out-of-game knowledge to improve the overall flow and fun of your game.
Whenever I’m sitting down to run a tabletop game of my own, I consider all sorts of out-of-game factors that could make or break the experience for my players. From their knowledge of the rules set, preferred types of challenges or even personal fears. All of this information can be applied to my plot, non-player characters (NPCs), or storytelling to give a better experience – either by focusing on it, or by going against the grain entirely. Consider as well the possibility to use metagaming to make the game more accessible to your players. Say I have someone in my play group who has an absolutely petrifying phobia of spiders, to the point where even an in-game description of one makes it impossible for them to appropriately roleplay their character. Their real world fear takes over, and they can’t separate from that headspace. Knowing this, I can chose to avoid the use of spiders in my game entirely, to make it a more enjoyable and honest experience all around. I can also pick and chose fears from my player's character backstories, or really any other detail they might have included that I didn’t considered. Being able to adapt my plot elements to reflect the players as they navigate through the story makes it a more personal and engaging experience. Hey, maybe sometimes you might even use your players’ out of game phobias (you monster*), because that’s going to really make your plot shine. (*I do this literally all the time, it’s me, I’m the monster.)
These days, metagaming isn’t restricted to tabletop. RPG video games spark the same discussions, with sharp contrast between those who praise or denounce the use of walkthroughs and game guides. As someone who often replays RPG’s, choosing different dialog options or plot directions with the knowledge I’ve gained from previous playthroughs, I definitely see the benefit of approaching a video game to get exactly the story you want instead of just the story you land in. Though I probably won't pull up a game guide on a first playthrough, I can still have outside knowledge of the plot of the game. Maybe gaining knowledge from discussions with friends, or online spoilers, or even reviews. Either way, if it’s a single player RPG, a game that is meant to entertain me and only me while I play it, what's the harm in curating that experience to make it really mine?
Metagaming sparks of a lot of debate, but recently I’ve seen more and more arguments in its favour. In the past few years I’ve seen metagaming taken off the list of ‘mortal game sins’. Instead, it’s being recognised as a tool for good. Though, whether or not it’s welcome at your particular game table depends on who you’re playing with. Some groups still hold on to the idea that any metagaming is bad metagaming. So, like most things, it’s important to figure out where your group lies on the subject. It’s been encouraging for me, as someone who’s seen the benefit of benevolent metagaming, to see the way it’s become more accepted as a means of game building in recent years. We now have entire communities of gamers who sing it’s praises for streamlining and improving their games.
At the end of the day, I think the issue with metagaming and cheaters is more an issue around individual players than the concept of metagaming itself. I’ve played a lot of different games, in a lot of different communities. If one thing holds true it’s that there are always going to be people who would rather cheat to win, than work to win. This is true for any game, regardless if it’s an RPG or not . Cheaters will always find a way to cheat, they’ll ‘miscalculate’ dice rolls or ‘accidentally misunderstand’ the rules, or give themselves a leg up through metagaming. That doesn’t mean that metagaming in and of it itself can’t be used effectively to personalise a story. A hammer will always be a hammer: it can be used to break things apart or build them. Which one It does depends entirely on who’s holding it.