What is Metagaming and How Do You Avoid It?

Metagaming is a common phenomenon that occurs in a lot of tabletop RPGs (TTRPGs) such as Dungeons and Dragons. Simply put, metagaming is when you as a player use information that you have but your character does not. This is typically done to give yourself an advantage in combat.

The primary inspiration for this article spurned from Matt Colville’s new D&D stream that premiered last week. There was a fair bit of discussion about how much metagaming went on in the session. Turns out, the vast majority of it wasn’t metagaming at all. Talking out of character to make a plan or discuss tactics isn’t metagaming provided that you are all using information that your characters have and not information only you as a player has.

I like this take from Robert and Matt quite a bit. As someone who enjoys the combat, tactics, and strategy aspects of TTRPGs more than role-playing it’s a bit jarring to have a decent amount of people find that tactical discussion done out of character is considered metagaming. For me, that’s one of my favorite parts!

True metagaming though is an enormous problem. I don’t run into it much personally since I tend to create homebrew campaigns, but the handful of times that I’ve played with or DM’d for a metagamer has been frustrating.

Examples of Metagaming

  • Reading the adventure ahead of time to learn about the encounters, loot, or secret rooms within the module.
  • Reading the Monster Manual or other sourcebooks to memorize statblocks of creatures your DM or GM uses.
  • Calling out special abilities or unique attacks from creatures or NPCs before they’ve been used in-game.

Notice that by themselves all of these examples are harmless. Reading a book, running a module and later playing in it, or encountering a creature in a different game isn’t metagaming. The issue is how this information is used!

Strategy vs. Metagaming

As long as tactics discussions include information that their characters know or could potentially deduce, encourage these types of discussions. They give your combat encounters some great depth and can help you as a GM gauge your table’s tactical decision making.

The more tactically inclined your players are, the more difficult and unique the encounters can be!

D&D party argument metagaming
Strategic discussions can get heated out of character too! Art by WotC.

Your characters also know what they’re capable of doing. They know what their spells and features can do. It makes sense that their characters would divulge this information to their party members, or say something during combat.

For example, they could plan to use ready actions to set up some exceptional combo moves or wait until their allies clear out of an area before dropping an Ice Storm.

Using your character’s information to plan ahead with your party isn’t metagaming. It’s strategic thinking and tactical decision making.

Preventing Unintentional Metagaming

I’ve had to even hold myself back from metagaming by accident. As you can imagine I read a lot of stuff. I mean, I’ve got a series of articles where I take a thorough look at individual monsters. I’m full of metagame-level knowledge.

It doesn’t take someone to be a DM or RPG fanatic to acquire this knowledge either. Casually playing a game for a few years will give you plenty of this type of information as well.

It’s difficult to actively not use information that you personally have but your character doesn’t, especially when that knowledge could save your character’s life. But it’s wrong. You have to stick to how your character would deal with the situation for better or worse because that’s the purpose of the game.

The vast majority of people I’ve played with are excellent with this. But all of us have our slip-ups from time to time. So, how could we as DMs and GMs find ways to prevent these from happening?

Reskinning

I’ve written an entire article on the benefits of reskinning and reflavoring creatures in D&D 5e, but it’s a useful tactic for any RPG system.

We’ve already covered this but the more you play a game, the more you learn about it. It’s difficult to hold yourself back from exploiting knowledge about a creature just because your character doesn’t have that same knowledge.

As a DM or GM, you can make some quick changes to a creature to both preserve their initial game balance but alter things so players don’t have to purposely act against their meta-knowledge of the creature’s abilities.

You can reskin just about anything to fit your needs. Traps, magical items, or even important NPCs in published adventures can be changed to throw your players off while still maintaining their initial game balance.

(Respectfully) Calling Out Metagaming

Communication is key for any sort of group setting. It’s difficult to confront people’s behavior in a group setting, especially if they’re friends.

Personally, I’ve found that if you talk to the player a bit after the session they’re pretty understanding. Be sure to give yourself a few days to think about how to approach the issue. A lot of times people don’t even realize that they’re doing it. It’s easy to get excited during a combat and call-out something without thinking about it first.

Particularly egregious shows of metagaming are better to squash as soon as they come up. If someone says “oh I read what to do in this room do x” call that behavior out. Blatant metagaming should be nipped in the bud early so that the table knows that it’s not acceptable behavior.

This doesn’t mean to be aggressive or accusatory towards the person. Even a simple “hey your characters don’t know that” is enough to get people to realize what they’re doing.

For the record, you don’t have to be the GM or DM of the game to call out bad behavior. If you know that they have a difficult time with conflict be sure to back them up or initiate the conversation.

Homebrewing

The best way to prevent metagaming, intentional or otherwise, is to show your players something they’ve never encountered. You could find homebrew from creators online, or even better, make your own!

Creating your own content is a great way to learn the ins and outs of a system in general, but in this case, it’s a great way to be absolutely certain that your players have no way to metagame their way through your encounter.

Grindylow D&D
Change around a goblin a bit and you have homebrewed a Grindylow! Credit: RPG Torchbearer.

How are they supposed to know what to do when this is the first time anyone has ever faced-off against this creature? They can’t. They can’t read up on it before or during the session. The best they can do is to make an educated guess, but that’s just good strategic thinking. Homebrewing is the natural counter to metagaming.

Of course, the downside to homebrewing is that it’s time-consuming. Even creating a creature or magical item takes a bit of time to do.

The benefit of published materials is that for the most part, you can just plop them into your game without worrying. Something you’ve made by yourself doesn’t necessarily have that type of polish, though with time and practice you’ll get there.

Conclusions

Metagaming is a serious issue in TTRPGs. It’s frustrating to handle as a GM trying to make a challenging, fair, and fun game. It’s also obnoxious to deal with as a player since a regularly metagaming peer can really suck the fun out of a session.

However, I’ve found that a lot of metagaming that’s been called out as of late isn’t really metagaming. Talking strategy or formulating a plan out of character isn’t metagaming, it’s part of the game. Not every conversation at the table has to be done in character.

This is why it’s important to set expectations during session 0. Discuss how your group should converse at the table. Let people know if it’s expected of them to stay in character when at the table. There’s nothing wrong with this style of play, but it’s certainly not the default way to play TTRPGs from my experience.

Metagaming sucks, but make sure it’s metagaming that’s the problem and not just a different style of play.

If you enjoyed what you read be sure to check out my ongoing review for all of the official D&D 5e books!

Sign up to get e-mail updates for new articles on Dungeon Solvers using the form below!

3 Comments

  1. It’s fair to expect your players not to memorize the Monster Manual, but the ghoul example you use is completely off-base. Ghouls are a well-known D&D creature that have existed in the game since its inception. Asking your players to pretend like they know nothing about them is inane; it’s not quite on the level of asking them to pretend like they don’t know red dragons breath fire, but it’s close.

    If you’re using a monster that’s well-known, you should expect your players to be familiar with their tactics and vulnerabilities. In fact, it’s best as a DM to just assume that certain monsters in a setting are so iconic or common that everyone in the setting knows about them. And this is completely fine. You can still create a challenging encounter even when your players know what a monster can do.

    • That’s a fair criticism. I could’ve used a better example.

      I wholehartedly agree with your second point. Knowledge of the creatures themselves shouldn’t make or break a challenging encounter. There should be plenty of other variables to add to the fight to keep things interesting!

  2. I really hate it when people call stuff out as metagaming when it’s just using the terms you know (grid spaces, hit points, damage types) to describe things that your characters should know just as well even if they think of it in different terms. Your wizard spent months learning how to cast Fireball; it would be insane for me to complain about you asking exactly what it would do in an ambiguous case.
    Another thing that can make things tricky to judge is that metagaming isn’t always bad. Sure, there are challenges that can get ruined because someone had out-of-character knowledge that made them trivial to get past, but there are also things like the players knowing to stick with fellow PCs, extend recruitment offers to new PCs, and not extend recruitment offers to NPCs, which really just come down to the players knowing that you want them to play as a group and not make you run multiple DMPCs. There was a scene in my game recently where after giving a kind of contrived excuse for an NPC not coming with the party to help them save the world, I just told them GM to players “This is so that the adventure can be about you rather than the DMPCs you get to come with you. Don’t try to work around this, it won’t work.

Leave a Reply