Metagaming is a hot topic in any TTRPG because it’s always something that the GM and players have to be wary of. (Metagaming is when a player uses knowledge from outside of the game to determine their actions, this can include known game mechanics or story elements.) Once everyone gets a feel for one another’s playstyle, it’s typically not a big issue, but metagaming shouldn’t be shunned in its entirety. There are some benefits of metagaming that can improve play and overall enjoyment. Don’t worry; I’ll go over everything. As someone who struggles with anxiety and depression — a combo that is less than ideal for a journalist or a game master juggling seven different players in a six-hour Dungeons & Dragons game — I understand that it can be tough to take a stance on metagaming situations, especially as a player.
In this week’s column of Tabletop tips from an anxious GM (all of which can be found on our DND tips hub), I’ll be discussing when metagaming can help improve play and even further the understanding of some characters.
There’s a big difference between metagaming to gain an unfair advantage and metagaming to improve the overall storytelling and play. Today, we’ll be talking about examples of the latter, and how you can add a little metagaming goodness into your games. Let me explain.
Communication! I’ll say it forever and it’ll be carved on my gravestone: Communicate with your GM and players about metagaming rules. Backstory flavor. Throw in some meta knowledge during your introduction — just enough to get them wanting more. Let’s chill on stats. No, your characters don’t know what hit points are, but this is a game, chill out.
Keep people around more often than not. Don’t kick out players during private moments, they want to have fun too! You can even use them to enhance the encounter. Advice for your children. Don’t let a player character die because they’re going to do something dumb — just tell them (trust me, they’ll appreciate you). Parallels, themes, and foreshadowing. Use your meta knowledge for good and guide the narrative to a place with the most creative storytelling potential.
How metagaming can improve the roleplay and how to do it — an in-depth look
Communication! First things first, you need to communicate with your GM and players about what boundaries are currently in place that concern metagaming. There are no hard and fast rules concerning metagaming, especially because every table is different. For example, at my table, I let players tell each other how many hit points they have (some tables don’t).
Backstory flavor. There’s some things that just don’t naturally come up at the beginning of a campaign, so it’s hard to get a feel for everyone’s characters, but when they’re introduced, consider adding in some meta flavor. For example, in my recent game of Call of Cthulhu, I introduced my character as a war veteran that defected and fought against his own people. Naturally, some characters wouldn’t know that, but it gives the players an idea of who this character is and what he’s all about. I didn’t tell them everything, which only left them wanting more!
Let’s chill on stats. There’s only so much you can do to not metagame. Let your players talk about stats, spells, and item description concerning said stats in order to strategize around combat scenarios. Of course, the characters don’t know that they’re in a game, but the players do, so let’s not roleplay so hard that it makes it impossible to play the game. This is a big concern when shopping for items, deciding who gets advantage on a certain ability check, or assisting a player in a check, and more. When it comes to the mechanics of the game, metagaming is necessary.
Keep people around more often than not. It’s common to take a player into a private chat or ask other players to leave the table for a moment in order to deliver private information or details regarding an individual encounter to someone. However, if it’s not pivotal to the overarching narrative, trust that your other players won’t metagame for the worse, and let them stick around to enjoy the ride. It’s exciting to watch other players deal with solo encounters. You can even let the other players help by letting them play villains or fit some other sort of role in this private encounter.
Advice for your children. GMs, it’s okay to give your players advice or fair warnings about certain events for the sake of brevity or clarity. This can save time and lives, and most importantly, your players will appreciate you. For example, if there is something that’s going to outright kill one of my players, I tell them — ultimately, it’s their choice if they want to go through with it, especially if what they’re after is worth the risk. This happened in one of my previous sessions when a player character died as a result of learning forbidden knowledge, but when he was revived, he got to share that information with the party. Additionally, this gives your players more autonomy, because instead of getting sideswiped by a dumb death, they have to deal with the consequence of a fully informed choice that they made.
Parallels, themes, and foreshadowing. You can’t predict what’s going to happen in a roleplaying game because everything is a spur of the moment decision, but that doesn’t mean we can’t add weight to the story by channeling some meta knowledge. Whether you’re trying to make an interesting parallel or foreshadow a particular event, using creative storytelling, you can weave the narrative with your meta knowledge without breaking the immersion. No, your cleric doesn’t know that some party members are committing shady dealings that might get them killed. But, despite how the characters feel, the players might want the cleric there for support, so it’s a fun and challenging exercise to figure out how the cleric gets to that shady spot. Metagaming around a certain story point is fun and may be necessary. The same way that a GM has to navigate all of the players back together when they’ve decided to split the party.
I hope this helps new players and GMs out there who are just jumping into TTRPGs. If you liked this column and want to see it continue, you can send me your own questions concerning mechanical, narrative, or social issues in the tabletop gaming space. You can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or find me on Twitter.