In Defense of Metagaming in Dungeons & Dragons
“Metagaming” has become somewhat of a curse word in the world of tabletop gaming. Being accused of metagaming is a dire insult to a player, and most try to avoid it at all costs. On one hand, I understand that immersion is an important factor in the enjoyment of the game, and metagaming can threaten that. On the other hand, though, I think in some situations, metagaming can be a valuable tool, if it is used correctly.
In fact, in the games I run, I sometimes encourage it.
What is Metagaming?
Metagaming is when a player uses real-life knowledge to influence how their character acts in the game. In many cases, it can be disruptive and problematic.
One of the best examples of this is provided by my 6-year-old, who loves playing but is still working on his gaming etiquette. He has practically memorized the Monster Manual and has a habit of yelling out what a creature is and its armor class as soon as I start describing it. It breaks the immersion in the game and, if he also remembers the creature’s weaknesses, can even unbalance encounters.
Obviously, that’s bad -- if the characters wouldn’t know what the creature is, the players shouldn’t know it’s immune to all non-magical attacks. However, there is another type of metagaming that I think can be beneficial.
All About Communication
The other type of metagaming that isn’t discussed as often is when players discuss the game once the session is over. It’s going to happen at some point; we get excited about playing and want to talk about what happened! However, in the course of these conversations, sometimes things get revealed that the characters wouldn’t otherwise know.
For example, perhaps the players are excitedly discussing the encounter from the last session when one of the players lets it slip that her character initiated the encounter because of something from her backstory that the other characters don’t know about in-game yet. That could get tricky -- now the players know this aspect of the character’s backstory, but the characters don’t.
In-game secrets can be hard to keep among out-of-game friends, but that’s when it becomes important for the players and Dungeon Master (we call them Quest Masters) to agree on where they stand with role-playing. This all comes down to play style -- in some games, role-play isn’t emphasized as much as combat and exploration, as both the players and Quest Master (QM) enjoy the encounters and puzzles more than the character interactions.
In many games, though, the inner-party role-playing is an important aspect of the game. If the QM and players are all on the same page where role-playing is concerned, little bits of knowledge like the example above won’t be a big deal, as the players will be eager to roleplay how their character might discover this interesting new tidbit. Sure, you lose some of the element of surprise at the table, but knowing things ahead of time can give players time to consider how their character might react to the revelation, which can make for some great in-game moments.
Keeping Everyone Comfortable
Here’s the big reason I’m in favor of some metagaming -- it can help keep everyone comfortable at the gaming table, which really should one of the QM’s goal. When I’m running a game, I want to be absolutely sure that everyone is having fun, and metagaming discussions can help ensure that happens.
The most obvious example of this is an inner-party romantic relationship. Some players embrace that in their games, while others don’t. This is something that should ideally be discussed at the beginning of any game when everyone is establishing what sort of gaming experience they’re looking for, but sometimes things develop differently than you might expect and it comes up months into a campaign.
If one player character is flirting with another, or doing anything else that someone might be uncomfortable with, I think it’s a great thing for the players to have a place to safely discuss that. With all the negative sentiments toward metagaming, some players may feel like they can’t talk about things like that out of the game unless their Quest Master encourages it.
To facilitate that, our gaming group has a “metagaming” channel in our Discord chat. It gives us a place to drop concerns, theories, or hopes about the game, as well as a place to discuss in-game developments that they may be uncomfortable with and want to place some boundaries on. It also gives me a place as Quest Master to check in with everyone as a group and see if there’s a dark storyline or any story elements that might bother some people so I can make sure everyone is still comfortable and enjoying what we’re doing.
Metagaming can absolutely cause some in-game problems, but I believe that it can also prevent others. As much as we might want everything in-game to be completely immersive and impulsive, that’s not always realistic, and being willing to admit that up front can help keep players from feeling like they have to sneak around with their metagaming discussions. I’m a big fan of facilitating trust between players and Quest Masters, and trusting players to know how to role-play properly even when these metagaming discussions have been had is a part of that.
Where do you fall on the metagaming debate? Tell us about how you handle it with your gaming groups!