Metagaming in Roleplay: What It Is And How To Avoid It
Metagaming in its simplest definition is the use of knowledge your character doesn’t have. It can come in many forms, though. Often, it is simply a lack of experience that leads to metagaming, but other times metagaming is utilized deliberately to gain unfair advantages over other players. This guide is geared towards helping the former to understand what metagaming is and how to avoid it. It is also to help recognize the latter type of player so as to avoid them.
Example #1 The inability of a player to separate their knowledge from their character's knowledge: This is almost always a case of inexperience rather than malice. It occurs when a player assumes that, because they have knowledge of something, their character does as well. The bleed through effect of this kind of metagaming can result in characters acting in a manner that simply doesn’t make sense.
For example: A poor peasant farmer in a medieval roleplay attempts to save a fellow companion who was caught under a fallen wagon. With the use of make-shift items and tools the farmer performs an emergency thoracostomy upon the injured fellow who is struggling to breathe. The player had seen this done in movies and on the internet, so they knew the basic concept of how it works. Their character, however, has no history or knowledge of medicine, and the procedure itself wasn't in notable use during that time-period.
Why is this metagaming? Within the scope of the setting, it simply doesn’t make sense for the character to have this kind of knowledge. Without access to modern social media, television, modern medicine, and the internet, this procedure isn’t something just any old random person would have seen. Unless there was a previous reference of the farmer having this knowledge and why, it falls under metagaming.
How to avoid this? If you’re prone to this, try to take the time when you post to really consider what your character could know vs. what you know. Ask yourself, ‘would my character know this?’ rather than assuming they just do. And remember, it’s okay for your character to not know something. Winging up a random excuse on the spot for why your character knows something every time something comes up that they don’t know is just as harmful to a roleplay.
Example #2 Utilizing character introspect, or a writer’s flavor text as direct knowledge: Like example #1, this form of metagaming is typically a case of inexperience. A player may simply not realize that their character would only be privy to certain parts of a post and instead react to all of the information.
Teeks smiles and greets her guests warmly.
“Welcome, make yourself at home,” she said pleasantly.
Her gentle demeanor revealed nothing of her sinister intentions, or the laboratory of test subjects kept in her basement.
Dashem squinted his eyes at Teeks, distrusting her immediately. His hand hovered near a concealed firearm under his coat. When Teeks began passing out drinks, he refused to partake.
Why is this metagaming? In the spirit of collaborative writing, Teek’s player included information in her writing to give the players a sense of suspense that they knew something the characters didn’t. Dashem’s player, however, acted directly on that information to have his character know Teeks was up to something, even though there was no outward action from Teeks to give him that information.
How to avoid this? Be mindful of differentiating outward actions in a post that can be observed by other players, and inward actions that are there for the benefit of the reader. Only act upon the former when determining your character’s actions.
Example #3 Utilizing your ability to read other people’s posts to act on events your character shouldn’t know about: Unlike the previous two examples of metagaming, this form of metagaming is typically more deliberate and, as such, more directly harmful to a roleplay. In these situations a player will make deliberate use of OOC information gleaned from another player’s posts that their character couldn’t know about to form an advantage over another player or players.
A member of a secret organization is acting as a spy for an enemy faction. They cover their trail well and never get caught IC, but occasionally, to maintain the atmosphere of their role, the player writes private posts of their character relaying information back to the enemy.
Upon reading these posts, the other player begins to deliberately try to put their character in situations to try and gain IC knowledge that they can act upon instead of letting the story progress organically by waiting for the spy character in question to make a mistake. The player knows their character doesn’t know anything, but they will bend the spirit of roleplay to make sure their character finds out no matter how contrived their methods might be. Whatever the tactic employed, it becomes very clear that the player is coming up with far-fetched excuses for their character to find out this information.
Why is this metagaming? Because you’re forcing actions and events based off of an OOC motivation by you, the player. This is unfair to the spy’s player who has been roleplaying their part carefully, only to have all their efforts turned upside down under the guise of random chance.
How to avoid this? Just don’t do it. If you know something your character doesn’t, keep it that way until the character finds out in the natural progression of the roleplay. Don't try to force it for OOC reasons.
Example #4 Utilizing knowledge of upcoming events to have a character act out of the norm to take advantage of the information: This form of metagaming can be equally as harmful as the previous to the integrity and fairness of a story. It is often driven by a win/lose mentality and an inability to see a roleplay as a story rather than a game to win. Correcting that mentality is key to combating this type of metagaming.
For Example: The GM has revealed in a sneak peek of upcoming events that the party of valiant heroes will be fighting a powerful fire demon. This was done to instill a sense of excitement and anticipation in the players, but one player's character inexplicably changes out his standard equipment in favor of equipment specially suited for fighting a fire based enemy. There was no IC reasoning behind the character’s actions, and it was purely motivated by what the player knew to give their character an advantage.
Why is this metagaming? The character had no way to know what they would be facing. His choice in equipment was purely based on what his player knew, rather than what was logical for the character to decide.
How to avoid this? Remind yourself that roleplay is a collaborative story. The goal isn’t to ‘win’ over the other players, it’s to create something as a group. Resist the urge to stack the deck in your favor rather than understanding that, sometimes, things aren’t supposed to be easy. It’s that challenge that makes the story.