One of my core philosophies is that the rules are meant to be adapted to your players and the unique story you wish to tell. I suppose this leads to my more flexible DM style, in which I will often bend the guidelines in the Player’s Handbook and the Dungeon Master’s Guide in favor of enhancing a narrative moment…because they are, after all, just guidelines!
However, there is one rule that I do feel pretty strongly about. A rule that I will enforce mercilessly with the threat of my piercing scorn…
Thou Shalt Not Metagame!
What is metagaming? Here’s what Wikipedia says:
“Metagaming is 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 […] The use of out-of-game information or resources to affect one’s in-game decisions.”
Now that sounds pretty dry, so let’s look at some examples! Here are some common signs that your players might be metagaming…how many of these have you heard around the table?
- “What is their Armor Class?”
- “They’re still standing? How many Hit Points are left??”
- “I interrogate the thief.”
- How do you know they’re a thief? You haven’t seen them do anything.”
- “They’re dressed all in black and are being shifty. They must be a thief.”
- “I want to cast [insert protective spell here].”
- “…but you’re just in the inn…”
- “You rolled some dice, so that must mean something is about to happen!”
- DM to Player A: “Ok, so with that Insight Check, you notice that the guard seems worried about something and keeps glancing towards his pack.”
- Player B (who did not make the check or is in a different room): “I search the pack!”
Those are just a few examples of metagaming. The act of acting upon something that you, the player, might know, but that your character doesn’t know. It’s the RPG version of breaking the fourth wall, but without Deadpool’s charming shenanigans.
In addition to taking away from the role-playing, it also breaks the narrative immersion of the table. I don’t care how high your character’s Intelligence or Wisdom score is…you can’t hear something that is said if you’re not there (scrying spells aside) and you can’t automatically know how many Hit Points a person has. It doesn’t work in real life and it doesn’t work in D&D.
So. What can you do about Metagaming?
As a Player: Just…don’t. If your character has no reason to know something, then don’t try to apply it to your in-character actions to gain an advantage. That’s it.
As a DM: While it’s hard to completely prevent metagaming from occurring, there are a few things you can do to either correct or dissuade it.
Don’t announce your dice rolls.
There are many occasions in which you will have to make a roll, either for an NPC check, in combat for the baddies, or to determine certain events and effects.
You do not have to tell your players what you rolled. In fact, I would advise against it on most occasions! With the exception of certain high-energy/high- stakes moments and adrenaline is high, try not to make a habit of sharing the outcomes of your rolls. The more you let your players “see” behind the screen, the easier it is to use that information in narrative-breaking ways. It also takes away from some of your subtle flexibility in managing combat 😉
Similarly, your players don’t need to know an enemy’s Armor Class or Hit Points. This is the most common example I’ve experienced in the D&D workshops, as a number of the kids may already have ideas about how strong certain enemies are. Also, if a player is used to playing video games that show an enemy’s health bar, they might get frustrated with the lack of transparency in D&D– but it still takes away some of the suspense and immersion that makes the game so enjoyable!
It’s true that your party can eventually figure out the Armor Class over the course of combat, but you don’t need to volunteer that detail right away!
Keep track of your players.
It can be easy, at times, to lose track of where your players are within the scene. Are they all in the same room, or have some of them left? Are some of them asleep (or otherwise distracted) while others are keeping watch? In these moments, you want to ensure that you make it clear who is receiving a certain bit of information or insights and which characters are not.
If a player isn’t “in the room where it happens”, then they won’t know what was revealed, and therefore can’t act upon that knowledge. Many players will simply get caught up in the moment and forget where their characters are, but some may try to act upon the information anyway. Be wary of this and don’t be afraid to re-iterate or confirm where each character is and what they are doing at the start of the scene.
…and no, I’m not apologizing for that Hamilton reference 🙂
Finally, just talk to your party.
Before I begin a new campaign, I like to give the party a quick run-down of my DM style and what the “Table Rules” are. This is a great way to establish understanding, transparency, and trust with your players. If you are clear with your intent, then you are less likely to run into miscommunication issues later on. So let them know up-front whether or not you allow metagaming at the table. Most of the time, they will respect that request and will try to be conscious of their actions.
Remember, if you don’t talk to your party about metagaming, who will??