Whenever an obnoxious pedant decides that people on the Internet need to hear their opinions on RPGs, it’s only a matter of time before they pen a condescending diatribe about metagaming. And I’m nothing if not an obnoxious pedant. So, after six years of angrily foisting my RPG opinions onto the Internet, it’s about time I got around to this.
TL;DR, metagaming is fine, and trying to stop your players from doing it is bad. This is old fuckin’ news to a lot of you I’m sure, but after some recent discussions I’ve had, I feel compelled to explore the reasoning personally. Before we even get into what metagaming is, though, I want to take a look at the name of the game. Literally, “role playing game,” and specifically what is meant by “role playing.”
Some folks will argue that it refers to thespianism. That the player “plays the role” of their character, in the same sense a stage actor does. The goal of the game, then, is to get inside that fictional character’s head. To understand them, and to portray them as faithfully to that understanding as you can.
This interpretation makes a certain kind of sense. I can see where it comes from, but it ignores the fact that RPGs grew out of the miniature wargaming community. The people who coined the phrase “Role Playing Game” were trying to describe what made their game different. And the people they were describing it to had a background of controlling dozens or hundreds of toy soldiers on a field.
In this new kind of game, instead of controlling an army, the player controls a single playing piece. That might sound limiting at first, but, they’re controlling it in a much more intimate way. The player doesn’t simply issue orders to the unit, they are the unit. If the player wishes, they can make their playing piece dance or sing, or recite an endless string of references to Monty Python and the Holy Grail. The playing piece will never lose morale and flee from battle, unless the player decides it’s time to flee. In other words, the player doesn’t merely control their piece, they take on the role of their piece.
Now, I’m not a historian. I don’t have factual evidence that this is where the term “Role Playing Game” came from. As far as I’m aware, nobody present at the time ever bothered to put their reasoning into words. I’m happy to be proven wrong if someone has a source, but until then, I find this to be a much more likely explanation than any thespian interpretation.
Of course, none of that actually matters. Aside from etymological curiosity, there’s no reason to quibble over why the name is what it is. After 40 years, and countless thousands of iterations, you can’t break down the name of the genre into its component parts and expect to draw any meaning from them. The phrase “Role Playing Game” has a definition separate from the words “role,” “playing,” and “game.” Much like the genre of Science Fiction is no longer strictly about fictional science, as it was in the days of Jules Vern.
I’m not interested in restricting what an RPG can and cannot be. Things grow, and change, and evolve from their original intent. That’s a good and beautiful thing. I only bring any of this up because it’s the source of so many misconceptions about the oldschool style of play. On more than one occasion, I’ve been told by very angry people that “if you’re not role playing, why participate in role playing games?” It’s a silly attitude, and it’s one that perpetuates the myth of metagaming into the modern day.
Metagaming is bringing your own real-world knowledge to bear against game problems. A classic example would be using fire against trolls because you (the player) have read the monster manual, despite the fact that you (the character) have never encountered a troll before. Other examples would be making a decision based on the referee’s facial expression (“She’s smiling! Retreat!”); or their past behavior (“Don’t open the chest. Molly always traps the first chest in every dungeon.”); or even just genre convention (“Dead bodies always end up turning into zombies. I chop off all their heads.”) Some people will even argue that it’s metagaming to make good choices if you don’t think your character would make those choices. (“Obviously the dragon is too powerful for me to defeat, but I’m really angry it killed my parents, so I have to attack it anyway.”)
Within the context of this conversation, “Metagaming” refers only to knowledge a person already has, or comes upon incidentally. It does not refer to information a person intentionally seeks out. If a player goes out and buys the module their referee is running, and keeps it open on the table next to them while they play, that’s a completely different sort of problem. It’s called “being an asshole.” The solution is not to play with assholes, and there’s no need to discuss that any further.
“Metagaming” is an inherently pejorative term, in that it only exists as a way of identifying bad behavior. Or, in this case, what some people claim to be bad behavior. As far as I know, there are two basic justifications for why metagaming is a bad bad no no:
First, there are those who stubbornly want their games to be challenging, while refusing to put in the effort required to make them actually challenging. The trolls I mentioned above are a good example. This kind of thinking is rank laziness, and deserves no consideration. Second, there are the thespians, whose first priority is to embody the character, rather than to play the game. Romeo kills himself every time the play is performed, even though the actor knows Juliet is only faking.
Advocates from both schools will make noble speeches about the importance of “staying in character.” In the latter case, those speeches will be more sincere, but regardless, what we’re actually talking about is asking the players to sabotage their own efforts in order to maintain the ideological purity of the game.
The whole concept of self sabotage undercuts the adversarial relationship between player and referee. It’s become something of a taboo to advocate for that relationship, but I believe it is essential for the players and the referee to sincerely try to best one another.* Not because the referee wants to “win,” but because the PLAYERS want to win.
In order for them to win, there must be conflict. In order for there to be conflict, there must be something to be in conflict against. As referee, I can give my players a fake conflict. A cardboard cutout that only exists to be knocked down. Invariably, they will overcome, and they’ll experience a cheap imitation of victory. Alternatively, I can give my players real conflict. I can create an environment that is trying to defend itself to the best of my ability. Then, IF the players overcome, their victory will be a truly meaningful thing. The result was not predetermined, it was earned.
Without real conflict, we’re just going through the motions. Kids with sticks, who are afraid to poke each other’s eye out. Except the sticks aren’t even real.
To expound on one of my examples above, lets say I’ve got a group exploring a dungeon, and they encounter some big bad scary monster I’ve created. One the players says they should attack, and I fail to suppress a grin of delight at the hell they’re about to unleash upon themselves. The players see this, and decide to take a more cautious approach.
Certainly I’ve made a mistake in tipping my hand to the players, but once that mistake was made, why shouldn’t they take advantage of it? The worst case scenario is that they waste some time, but ultimately, are satisfied that they followed up on every lead. The potential alternative is that they pretend nothing happened, get themselves killed, then resent the fact that they could have survived if only they’d been trying their hardest.
There’s basically no downside to encouraging players to metagame, which cannot be said of the reverse.
Now, obviously, people prefer different styles of play. It’s not bad-wrong-fun if you enjoy thespianism in your RPGs. If you’re playing D&D I think you don’t really understand the game, but, this post is not an angry rant directed at your existence. It really isn’t. You do you, and I sincerely hope you have fun doing it.
My frustration is that the thespian outlook so thoroughly dominates discussion of RPGs, that most folks take it as a given that metagaming is bad. To the point that any defense of metagaming is made out to be ludicrous.
But it’s not ludicrous, because I’m a very smart person who would only ever advocate for the correct viewpoint. Ipso facto, metagaming is fine, and trying to stop your players from doing it is bad.