With each new edition of a role-playing game, the hobby gains new players, and that’s a good thing. But each new crop breathes new life into old arguments.
Since 5th edition, I’ve been seeing, in particular, a resurgence in comments about the evils of meta-gaming, often from game masters who say they won’t tolerate it, who demand to know how a PC knows something he or she claims to know, or who even punish players who engage in it.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not talking about out-and-out cheating (looking at the GM’s adventure notes or reading ahead in a published adventure the referee happens to be running–like Steve, above, might be doing).
I’m talking about a player knowing stuff about monsters or the system because he or she is an experienced player, one of the other GMs in your group, or simply a very interested player–and then using that knowledge in-game.
Reactions to meta-gaming can often make the game worse. And that’s unfortunate because meta-gaming has always been more an aesthetic sin than a moral one. It’s not the cheating sin it appears to be.
Why Cracking Down on Meta-Gaming Will Backfire
Do me a favor: I know a lot of you are already arguing with me, in your heads. But if you keep doing that, you’re going to misread what I’m saying, and then I’ll end up repeating myself in the comments at the bottom of the article. I’m not saying I approve of meta-gaming. I think it’s often garish. But I’ll get to that later. Let’s talk about what it’s not, and what it’s not is cheating.
First, let’s start with a basic but absolutely critical observation: Players are sometimes wrong about what they think the books say.
Think about what that means. When a player draws on what she thinks he knows, there are three possibilities:
- She’s right.
- She did read the right information at some point, but remembers it incorrectly.
- She’s right about what the books say, but she’s in for a surprise because you didn’t use the details straight out of the book. (Heh-heh.)
And whatever the player does know, there’s one thing she absolutely doesn’t know: She doesn’t know if she’s right. She might be very confident, but she doesn’t know. Meta-gaming is always, every time, just another kind of guess. An educated guess, but just a guess. And a guess isn’t a cheat.
Now something interesting happens if you try to crack down on meta-gaming. You have two choices if you want to play meta-cop: You can crack down only when the players are right. Or you can crack down every time, even if the players are wrong.
Both run into problems. Big ones.
If you only protest about meta-gaming when your players are accurate, then you, Sir GM, have a tell. Congratulations. They don’t need the book in front of them because they can read you like a book.
And if you protest every time, even when the players are wrong, then you’re telling them their characters cannot claim to have incorrect information. Sorry, but that’s just weird.
The above principle applies even if your response is to ask, “How does your character know that?” as though lack of a good response means the PC must revoke the statement. That question has some problems.
Let’s say, hypothetically, that the player responds, “My brother told me.”
There’s nothing at all wrong about that answer. Lots of people believe things because they heard (or think they heard) their mom, or dad, or priest, or teacher say it. So how do you reply to a perfectly adequate response?
Some of you are thinking you’d follow up with something like this: How did your brother know?
I know: This question may not look like it qualifies as the kind of protesting that I earlier said gives you away. But it totally does.
Break it down with me. If your first instinct is to chase down how the brother knows, then I’m almost positive that you were imagining a scenario in which the brother is right. Really. Because if you were imagining a situation in which the brother was wrong, then something like 99% of you would just laugh and let the PC follow his brother’s bad advice. And if this is the case, then again, you have a tell.
If, instead, you insist on knowing how the brother “knows” even if the brother is wrong, then you’re engaging in a pointless search. He knows because his mom told him, who knows because the village priest said it, who knows because he misread a flock of ravens as an omen. When it comes to the roots of wrong information, it’s turtles all the way down. So now we’re back to you being weird.
In short, every time a player says his character knows something, you have three options: let him move forward, make your game weird, or tip him off about whether he is right.
Ironically, if you prefer the third choice, then you’re creating more meta-game knowledge by confirming his guesses.
When a player says his character knows something, then, the only rational response is to act as though that character really does think he knows that thing.
If the character happens to be right, that’s only a big deal if your entire campaign somehow hinges on them not knowing how a medusa works. If so, that’s an unrealistic expectation. Characters in any world grow up with folklore, and thus the PCs of the game world would likely have at least as much exposure to the wyverns, manticores, and basilisks of their world as we have. In fact, they’d likely have more exposure than we do, since ours are all fictitious.
Some of what they’ve heard may be right; some might not be. Some might be based on real experience. Some might be based on legend only. But it’s weird and unfair to expect anyone to pretend their character is a total blank slate. I’ve written before that knowledge and certainty rarely go hand-in-hand. Experts (who do know things) often hedge because they know how easy it is to be wrong, while amateurs are often brashly overconfident about what they think they know, even if it’s often (though not always) wrong.
The human mind abhors a vacuum. About very few subjects will it be silent.
For this reason, asking players to act like their characters are blank slates asks them to role-play badly. Yes, you read that right. It’s normal to assume you know things (right or wrong). Pretending not to know anything is unnatural.
But What about Their Unfair Advantage?
But, some of you are protesting, if the players can draw on meta-game knowledge, they’ll have an unfair advantage against my encounters.
Nope. Not if you handle it right.
In actual play, honest player mistakes and the occasional (but hopefully not overdone) surprise detail or unique creature will keep players on their toes — particularly if they can never tell, from the game master’s reaction, whether their statements about that medusa are right.
PC: Let me see. We have three, no four, stone statues. And by the pond ahead of us, there’s a woman with her back to us. You said her hair seems to move. Well, that’s a medusa, obviously.
GM: If you say so.
PC: Well, isn’t she?
GM: I don’t know. Sounds like you think it is. Sounds like you think it’s a she, too. Please, continue. Having decided the figure is a medusa, what do you do?
PC: Well, a medusa’s gaze has a range of 30 feet.
The GM smiles.
PC: Um, I think. I think it’s 30 feet. Right?
GM: Your character clearly thinks so.
PC (nervously): I’m going to stand here [picks a space 35 feet away] and start shooting at her.
GM: Interesting. You said “start shooting.” That implies more than one shot. So you mean to keep looking at the target, and firing, even if it turns around?
PC: Um. Maybe I want to back up to 60 feet?
GM: Too late. It’s turning around.
Sure, maybe it really is a medusa. And yes, the medusa’s gaze has a 30-foot range. So maybe the player is right about everything.
But what do you want to bet he chews off a nail?
And for how long do you think he’ll trust that out-of-game knowledge?
Meta-Gaming Is an Aesthetic Sin
If your objection to meta-gaming is that it shatters the shared illusion you’re trying to create, you’re on far stronger ground.
I get how it can irk. I really do.
Meta-gaming can break your group’s immersion about as effectively as if a player names his knight Sir Fred, or Sir Mix-a-Lot, when all of the NPC knights have Arthurian names.
But most of the time, the responses that game masters brag about are worse than the sins they’re responding to.
There are better ways for the game master to play it.
Here’s a principle to game by: If your goal is immersion, then your response should always be to re-immerse the players.
The last thing you want to do is respond to meta-PCing with meta-DMing. Inflicting arbitrary meta-damage, for instance, makes your game more meta, not less, and you’re leading by example. Don’t be surprised when your players follow that example. Or leave entirely.
Always, always steer in the direction you want the game to go.
For weird names that seem jarring, for instance, you can establish context.
PC: “Hello!” I say to the other knight. “I’m Sir Fred.”
GM: He looks perplexed at first. “Fred? Oh, are you the son of Good Theodoric the Bold?”
GM: “Tsk,” says the other knight. “He named you Fredoricor. A good name. Long history. But he always said you were recklessly independent.”
I call this the Indiana Jones principle. As you’ll recall, Indiana was the dog’s name. The player can choose his character’s name, but you are in charge of the world and can figure out how to integrate it.
The same kind of strategy holds for meta-gaming:
PC: Okay, so I’ve done 14 points of damage. Gus has done 22, and Mary has dished out 18. That’s 54, total. The Monster Manual IX lists the babadook as having 82 hit points, so we need to do another 28 and it’s dead. Lightning bolt deals 28 damage on average, so I’ll cast lightning bolt and start the bolt at the babadook.
GM: Understood. Here’s how it plays out. In the midst of the battle, as arrows whiz by your heads and orcs scream in pain or rage, Hurricore the Wizard squints at the babadook, appraising it. Its movement is slightly slower, more hesitant. Its haughty expression more subdued. It wavers and ripples as though even an errant wind might disrupt it. You think maybe it’s hurt, vulnerable. Hurricore reaches into the air, gathering to him static electricity — and perhaps some of the fading life energies of the slain or dying at his feet. Then he hurls a bolt of brilliant white at the babadook. [Rolls happen.] The babadook slams backward ten feet, on fire, toppling to the ground. Then it staggers to its feet and, still apparently undefeated, flees for the nearest horizon.
PC: Damn. It wasn’t enough. I run after it with my sword.
In my experience, when game masters reply to meta-gaming with immersion, the players eventually follow suit.
It’s kind of hard not to. Immersion is fun. ‡
♦ Graham Robert Scott writes regularly for Ludus Ludorum when not teaching or writing scholarly stuff. Graham has also written a Dungeon Magazine city adventure titled “Thirds of Purloined Vellum” and a fantasy novella titled Godfathom. Like the Ludus on Facebook to get a heads-up when we publish new content.