From the D&D Basic set, Sample Expedition (Moldvay, page B59):
Morgan: "...I'll search through the rags. Anything that looks like a cloak or boots?"DM: "...Morgan, you do find a pair of old boots, but nothing like a cloak."Morgan: "Fred will dump the silver and look for hidden compartments in the box. I'll try on the boots to see if I move silently -- we could use a pair of elven boots!"DM: "...Morgan seems to be moving very quietly."Morgan: "GREAT!"
The game of Dungeons & Dragons is a game. I know I've written that many times before; I know that other people have expounded on this idea many times before. It's not a new statement.
And yet, folks are constantly forgetting the fact.
"Your character wouldn't know that!" How many times has this phrase (or a variation of it) been uttered at the gaming table. How many times have DMs (or "helpful" PCs) policed would-be actions in the name of preventing a player from metagaming?
Per Ye Old Wikipedia, "metagaming" (i.e. approaching a game from outside the normal rule structure of the game in question) as applied to role-playing games
...often refers to having an in-game character act on knowledge that the player has access to but the character should not. For example, tricking Medusa to stare at a mirror when the character has never heard of Medusa and would not be aware of her petrifying stare.
In the above example from Moldvay's Basic, the Morgan's player is metagaming: she (the player) realizes there is a magic item called elven boots. She understands she is playing a game where players find magical treasures in dungeons. When she discovers an old pair of boots in a locked chest, she tries them to see if they function like the magical item...she uses player knowledge to inform and direct her character's action. Same as the player trying to trick Medusa into viewing her own reflected gaze.
Metagaming in roleplaying games is, generally, frowned upon. I was reminded of that recently when listening to the excellent first episode of the The Classic Adventure Gaming Podcast...a bunch of FAGs ("fantasy adventure gamers") discussing the fundamentals of fantasy adventure gaming, i.e. old edition D&D gaming. These worthies bemoaned attempts to curtail metagaming as disrupting player agency...a bad thing in their estimation. A good example they cited was the DM disallowing a player from using flaming oil on a troll until AFTER seeing the thing regenerate from wounds sustained.
As a longtime FAG myself, I found myself in total agreement with these youngsters (pretty sure I'm older than all of them...EOTB only started playing circa '87). But I wanted to consider WHY that is. I may be a cranky geezer, but I'm not so clueless as to believe I'm in the majority opinion here. What's the pushback against metagaming...and why do I find myself taking the opposite stance?
Back to wikipedia (*sigh*) where I find that the dislike of metagaming stems from two main issues:
- It upsets the suspension of disbelief.
- It affects game balance.
I'll address the second issue first. Metagaming for advantage has a loooong history, and applies to all sorts of competitive endeavors, not just roleplaying. If an umpire is calling pitches tight, you can draw more walks by making yourself smaller at the plate; if your boss cares more about friendship than performance when it comes promotion time, you go out of your way to be a "buddy."
Gaming the system in this manner is certainly a form of cheating, but whether it is perceived as such is a matter of degree. Stealing signs in baseball wasn't illegal until 2017...and only then became illegal to use electronic devices to aid in sign stealing. Spreading rumors to your boss about a rival employee (in order to raise the boss's comparative estimation of yourself) would definitely be underhanded behavior.
But in a game like Dungeons & Dragons...a cooperative game of survival...what's the issue? So what if the players know they need fire to defeat the troll? Oil, torches, fireballs...these are finite resources. The DM's ability to apply challenge (create monsters, etc.) is infinite. Why would a DM sweat players finding ways to circumvent challenge? Win or lose, the DM is going to responsible for creating NEW challenges anyway (in an on-going campaign).
"Okay, JB, sure...but what about breaking the game? What about players that use the rules to their advantage such that there's no challenge AT ALL, EVER, EVER AGAIN?!" Um...not sure what game you're playing there, pal. I guess I'd suggest you need to play something more robust...like 1st edition AD&D. In all my years of playing, I've never seen someone 'break' the system...and I've seen some pretty munchkin-y attempts. The game scales amazingly well.
If the players aren't challenged by the game, it's the fault of the Dungeon Master, not "the meta."
So, let's look at the other complaint: upsetting the suspension of disbelief. Breaking the "immersion." Throwing sand in the well-oiled gears of the "role-playing" machine.
D&D is a fantasy adventure game, i.e. a game that allows one to experience fantasy adventures. I know it is a "role-playing" game, but the role-playing is not the point of play...it is the medium through which the "play" gets done. You have a role to play. You are the fighter. Or the cleric. Or the All-Powerful Dungeon Maestro (trademark pending). What you are allowed to do in the game is based on the role you are playing. If you're a fighter, you don't get to turn undead or cast spells. If you are a player character, you don't get to design the dungeon. Got it?
"Immersion" (which I suppose could be loosely defined as "losing oneself in imagined escapist fantasy") DOES occur in the process of playing D&D, and for many participants...perhaps most participants...it is the main draw and attraction of the hobby.
[I can tell you that my wife strongly dislikes playing RPGs because she is incredibly uncomfortable with the immersion experience: for her, it is NOT fun...rather it is disconcerting]
But in my experience, immersion does not come as the result of playing a role, or a character, or attending to one's background, backstory, character arc, etc. Instead, immersion ONLY comes from being directly engaged with the gameplay at the table. That requires interest in the material and pressure applied by the circumstances of the game, as facilitated by both the DM and the system mechanics.
Now, I understand there are LOTS of human beings out there who don't give a rip about armor-clad, sword-swinging elves confronting slimy monsters in underground caves while looking for gold and jewels. I get that! Just like there are LOTS of people (like me) who care absolutely zero about whether or not they can put a round rubber ball through a netted hoop 10' off the ground. Different strokes for different folks. Hard to be engaged in a game whose premise you're just not into.
But it's the play of the game you are interested in that creates the immersive experience, the time loss where you look up and say "we've been playing for HOW long?" You might get a kick out of pretending (internally or externally) that you are Michael Jordan, LeBron James, etc., but it's the action of playing basketball that draws you in, not the play-acting on the court. Likewise, I might enjoy putting on an accent and referring to myself as Wendell the Wondrous Wizard at the game table...but ACTING like an imaginary person is NOT the game. Confronting the challenge of the fantasy adventure at hand is the game.
Metagaming, then, does not discourage immersion...and, in many cases, can lead to deeper immersion as it allows players to more actively engage with the material at hand:
"Oh My God: a TROLL? We need fire to kill these guys!" "Who has the oil?" "I only have two flasks left and we're going to need the lantern to get out of the dungeon!" "I still have a light spell left." "Okay, we can risk it...see, this is why you save the fireball spell!"
D&D is a game. It is not a film, not a story. It does not require suspension of disbelief, because the immersion that occurs does not come (as with a film) from sitting down and passively absorbing the story that is fed through our senses. The immersion comes from participation and active engagement...as with any game.
No DM should worry about metagaming. Just worry about building the world...the game parts, run correctly, will take care of themselves.