Friday, January 20, 2023

Metagaming & Myopia

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:
  1. It upsets the suspension of disbelief.
  2. 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 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 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 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 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. 
: )


  1. I don't know man that example seems the antithesis of the Old School play style, more reminiscent of D&D 4E where players told the DM what treasure they wanted.

    Morgan doesn't find boots and then guess they might be Boots of Elven Kind, she suggests there be boots and gets them. Then she suggests they let her move silently and they do. Foolish Morgan! You should have asked if there might be a Ring of Ultimate Power and then asked if she felt Ultimate after putting it on. Lol

    Obviously whatever floats your boat is what you'll go with (by you I mean every individual GM). My players and I follow pretty much the opposite stance.

    1. 4E is the one edition of D&D that I haven't played, but I *have* read the books and I don't recall there being a bit about players telling the DM what treasure they want.

      The text is edited down to the specific player metagaming...there's a lot more in the actual text that would describe a non-"story gaming" game.

      BA: if you and your players "follow pretty much the opposite stance," does that mean you dislike metagaming? Can you explain and contrast how it helps your game to make your players act ignorant when they're not? How does metagaming harm your hobby?

    2. Like anything else it depends on context. In Star Trek for example, we assume events (episodes) prior to our campaign Stardate to be logged into the ship's records but we don't automatically identify species, technology, or concepts before our characters would know them.

      Instead, perhaps the idea of a Static Warp bubble or First Contact with a particular alien originated with us/our characters and vessel.

      We do get meta but in a different way - out of character jokes about the 'shows budget' or an NPC having been on before with different makeup. It is never in character. It doesn't occur in canon as it were. It breaks immersion, creating a further layer of distance between the Players, PCs, and the world/universe they live in.

    3. The player in that example wasn't telling the DM what they wanted, they were guessing; and apparently guessing correctly, as the DM seems to confirm. That's all. No big whup.

    4. While I kind of assumed that was the case @John Higgins, the first thought that came to my mind wasn't 'good guess'. It was too coincidental to be coincidental and just seemed like Morgan read the module before playing through it..

    5. @Adam Or they could've just read the rulebook. There are only ten entries on the Basic Set's table of miscellaneous magic, after all, and only one of them includes boots.

      1. Bag of Devouring
      2. Bag of Holding
      3. Broom of Flying
      4. Crystal Ball
      5. Elven Cloak & Boots
      6. Gauntlets of Ogre Power
      7. Helm of Alignment Changing
      8. Helm of Telepathy
      9. Medallion of ESP
      10. Rope of Climbing

    6. In Basic (in the first set) the elven cloak and boots were the only kind of boots or cloak available, so it wasn't that huge of a guess...

    7. Morgan, like the module they are playing is fictional, the correct guessing of the magic item's properties is a narrative choice, not a conspiracy.

  2. I never worry about meta gaming. I know a lot of facts about vampire weaknesses (garlic, running water, mustard seeds on roof, wooden stake, etc) and they are not real

    Now if trolls were real, and common at that, I am pretty sure that even in a non literate world, oral folklore would make me aware of their fire vulnerability. As an adventurer I'm sure I'd make it a point to find out.

    Don't punish player skill in terms of campaign knowledge, reward it. This increases immersion. Also, have fire trolls, identified by their red hair, which heal when struck with fire.

    Anytime a player identifies a fact of campaign lore, it shows they are paying attention and care (they have electrum; only the eld use electrum. How'd they get a hold of that??)

    There are limits, but they generally apply to specific motivations and secrets, not general thoughts. Player skill is based on interaction and immersion within the game world, not how well you limit your behavior to fit another person's idea of who the PC is.

    1. As Melan points out the podcast, for the typical denizen of a "D&D world," trolls aren't fantastic (nor are magic missiles)...they're a part of the characters' daily reality. If low-level PCs know how to kill trolls, they've probably heard war stories from older, grizzled vets.

      Likewise, there's plenty of mystery and discovery to be had in D&D even without forcing players to pretend at ignorance. Folks who come to the game with only a "movie understanding" of vampires will be surprised to find the creatures suck energy levels instead of blood. My own kids (running through Ravenloft) were completely unaware of the various vampire tropes and so searched for the Big Bad Guy in the tallest towers and bellfrys, thinking they'd find him sleeping upside down like a bat.

      It's the DM's job to craft interesting situations that need deciphering, even when the monsters and dangers are known and understood by the people at the table.

  3. This week, my older boy and I started playing a campaign dungeon crawl board game. My friend, the game host Adam, the other adult player Emily, and I were discussing RPGs at our lunch break. Adam was telling us how he's usually uncomfortable with RPGs because he's not really into "doing voices" or trying to think like a fantasy person. He's much more into the puzzle-solving, tactical decisions, and finding ways to gain advantage from the rules side of game play. Hence his preference to play these sorts of games that sort of mimic D&D play, but with just the interaction with the rules and the current state of play to worry about.

    I think he would 100% agree with this blog post, and honestly, I agree too. Knowing the rules, including the in-game lore that comes baked into the rules, is not destructive metagaming at all. It's good game play.

    He was curious about how someone could play the same game for decades and not get tired of the rules, though! Emily and I both talked about what gets us to keep playing, namely the situations that arise within the game. It's exactly the immersion in the game *in situ* that keeps us interested, even if every time we roll up a Fighter we know we'll need exactly 2000 xp to 2nd level, or that our Magic-User will get exactly 1 spell per day at first, etc.

    1. Dennis...your brother's question is fantastic. It's the Great Unspoken Query that underlies the broader: 'why play D&D at all' that drives folks into the arms of 'role-playing' (from the playacting sense of the term) or railroad epic quests or simply into eclectic game hopping around the spectrum of RPGs on the market.

      Gives me a good subject for my next post because I have an answer for him!
      : )

    2. Adam's view on the game and immersion is the same as mine and is the same one that my group had back in the 80s. Immersion comes through the solving of puzzles and overcoming of obstacles and that rules mastery is the way to achieve that.

      On what PC know I think that that is campaign specific but I do agree with the point made by Melan about shared knowledge and fireside chats. That is afterall how the apprentice learns from their master.

  4. Oooh, I LOVE Dungeon Maestro...

    At the other hand, RPG requieres some kind of suspension of disbelief, I think. Not the same as a movie but something like a book or a oral story. You need to think that something in it as to be real or realistic, even with magic implicates. But for sure "The immersion comes from participation and active engagement", I always try to use both ways to captivate my players.

    1. I kind of like "dungeon maestro," myself. Probably use the term in my next book.

      [but don't worry...I'll make sure it's designated as Open Gaming Content]
      ; )

  5. 100% with you on this, and it does make sense that characters would know some of this stuff. I mean, the PCs grew up in the world didn't they? They have to have learned something, and knowing that you need fire to kill trolls is the sort of thing that would make it into scary fireside stories.

  6. Can you imagine playing the same game for decades and yet every time your next character encounters a Beh... Eye Tyrant, do the "what manner of creature could this be?" rigamarole all over again?

  7. It's worth noting that Gygax considered system mastery and metagaming of this sort "Good Play" and "Player Skill". This isn't to say "Gygax said it so it's right," but more to point out the implication that D&D, from it's core, was designed and balanced around "Player Skill".