Out-of-character/metagame knowledge

pemerton

Legend
I think it bears repetition: in a game that relies upon hidden information, which is the case for many D&D modules (as well as many other games, like many card games, Mastermind, etc), then if a player has acquired the information in some way other than through their gameplay the game will be compromised (at best) or ruined (at worst).

If a play gets the hidden information through underhanded means, that's what we call cheating. And the problem with cheating isn't that it's metagaming - the problem with cheating is that it's cheating!

There can also be accidental behaviour that has the same consequences as cheating - eg I'm playing cards, and I don't deliberately look at your cards but I catch a glimpse of them when you turn your head to answer a question and inadvertently turn your body, and hence your hand that is holding the cards, at the same time. If I see one card and its the 8 of clubs and the bid is diamonds, it probably doesn't matter and we can play on. If the card I see is the jack of diamonds, and the fact that you had that card hadn't already been made clear by the bidding, then maybe it's time for a redeal.

In RPGing which doesn't rely on hidden information, then the player knowing what sorts of ideas the GM has in mind and using that to shape their play will be metagaming, but seems as likely to help as to hinder play. I'm thinking here of Burning Wheel, maybe some PbtA play, In A Wicked Age, maybe some HeroWars/Quest, Wuthering Heights, etc.
 

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I think there’s an interesting juxtaposition among things that normally get classified as metagaming.

There’s the classic example of players whose characters have never encountered trolls before deploying fire immediately upon finding one. This is very often viewed in a negative light. Many GMs will restrict such action or at the very least frown upon it.

But the same GM will introduce the plothook of the half-elven mage dropping his notes at the PCs’ feet and will expect the players to have their characters take the cue. Here’s the adventure…please bite and I’ll reel you in. This is good metagaming because it facilitates play.

That’s the kind of dichotomy that I think was suggested in the OP. It’s an interesting phenomenon.

Does this often happen because the GM is the arbiter of what’s “good” or “bad” metagaming?

I view the first example as one of the players communicating to the GM “okay let’s get on with it”. Much as the second is an example of the GM saying to the players “here we go”.

Is the first frowned upon because it originates with the players? Or that it contradicts what the GM wants to see? Or is there something else going on?
 

James Gasik

Legend
Supporter
Plus let's be honest. If you fight a werewolf without silver or a mummy without fire, what the heck are you supposed to do? Die?*

*Ok, granted, you could flee, but a werewolf can probably catch you, and, depending on the edition, fleeing is a lot harder than it sounds. in AD&D you open yourself up to a free hit, in 3.x the Run action lowers defenses -and- provokes, and the same might be true for players taking the Dash action in 5e. This is why in 3e I usually kept an Obscuring Mist or similar spell prepared.
 

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
Plus let's be honest. If you fight a werewolf without silver or a mummy without fire, what the heck are you supposed to do? Die?*

*Ok, granted, you could flee, but a werewolf can probably catch you, and, depending on the edition, fleeing is a lot harder than it sounds. in AD&D you open yourself up to a free hit, in 3.x the Run action lowers defenses -and- provokes, and the same might be true for players taking the Dash action in 5e. This is why in 3e I usually kept an Obscuring Mist or similar spell prepared.

Two things-

First, I have somewhat recently played 5e with a group of ... newbies ... who didn't know the "troll rule." Their expectations of trolls was from Troll Hunter, and things like that. Anyway, watching them try to deal with regenerating trolls was fun AND hilarious (and fire didn't come up as a solution until a very long time into it).

Second-

One of the problems with D&D is that the players always know too much. This is news? “You obtain surprise over three Clickclicks.” “Clickclicks? Oh, yeah, they’re in Supplement Three. Hand it to me. And where’s Greyhawk? It had a note about them.” A pause. “We shout out ‘November’.”
“That’s right, the Clickclicks fall over dead.”
Sound familiar?


Where is that from? The lament that players know too much about monsters? That players are .... horrors .... metagaming? That would be Dragon Magazine, October ... 1977.

The essential problem with the framing we have here is that any time you are playing a TTRPG, you are engaging in metagaming (unless you're like Tom Hanks' character in Mazes and Monsters). If you, as a player, know that trolls are affected by fire, then:
A. You attack with fire. Metagaming.
B. You don't attack with fire. Metagaming, because you are ruling out something you might try but for your out-of-game knowledge.
C. You call for a roll to see if your character would know this. Metagaming, because you wouldn't ask for the roll if you didn't know it would probably succeed.

The issue is that "metagaming" has a pejorative connotation in TTRPGs in general, and D&D specifically, because it's been called out in the rules books. The DM's guide in the third, fourth, and fifth editions all "call out" metagaming-

"Metagame thinking means thinking about the game as a game. It's like a character in a movie knowing he's in a movie and acting accordingly." (DMG 4e p. 15)

Because of this, and related discourse around "metagaming," it's usually unhelpful to introduce it as a concept since players are supposed to be encouraged to think in "in-game terms." But viewed more broadly, metagaming is always present. Always. Using the term is usually either (a) a distraction from the actual topic of conversation; or (b) a rhetorical hammer used to make a point by employing the negative connotation of the term.

Either way, unhelpful. And if you want to fireball that troll, go right ahead.
 
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James Gasik

Legend
Supporter
You have to wonder how humans actually survived in a D&D world with all these horrible monsters. Ok, sure, once they discovered fire, they would try it on everything, so they're ok with trolls.

That first werebear though, in an age before metalworking...
 

aramis erak

Legend
The issue is that "metagaming" has a pejorative connotation in TTRPGs in general, and D&D specifically, because it's been called out in the rules books. The DM's guide in the third, fourth, and fifth editions all "call out" metagaming-

"Metagame thinking means thinking about the game as a game. It's like a character in a movie knowing in he's in a movie and acting accordingly." (DMG 4e p. 15)

Because of this, and related discourse around "metagaming," it's usually unhelpful to introduce it as a concept since players are supposed to be encouraged to think in "in-game terms." But viewed more broadly, metagaming is always present. Always. Using the term is usually either (a) a distraction from the actual topic of conversation; or (b) a rhetorical hammer used to make a point by employing the negative connotation of the term.

Either way, unhelpful. And if you want to fireball that troll, go right ahead.
Gygax was VERY much "Players shouldn't know the rules"... the AD&D 1E DMG is pretty over the top about that issue.
AD&D1e DMG said:
As this book is the exclusive precinct of the DM, you must view any non-DM player possessing it as something less than worthy of honorable death. Peeping players there will undoubtedly be, but they are simply lessening their own enjoyment of the game by taking away some of the sense of wonder that otherwise arises from a game which has rules hidden from participants. It is in your interests, and in theirs, to discourage possession of this book by players. If any of your participants do read herein, it is suggested that you assess them a heavy fee for consulting "sages" and other sources of information not normally attainable by the inhabitants of your milieu. If they express knowledge which could only be garnered by consulting these pages, a magic item or two can be taken as payment - insufficient, but perhaps it will tend to discourage such actions.
Other places go even further than this.

Given D&D was always the 800 lb gorilla; this hostility to player rules mastery can be laid squarely at the feet of the late Mr. Gygax.
 


Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
Gygax was VERY much "Players shouldn't know the rules"... the AD&D 1E DMG is pretty over the top about that issue.

Other places go even further than this.

Given D&D was always the 800 lb gorilla; this hostility to player rules mastery can be laid squarely at the feet of the late Mr. Gygax.

Asked about his feeling on metagaming, Gygax replied as such:

Depends on the subject matter and the character. Who can say what a PC knws and doesn't know aboit the world he lives in? if it's something that could be known, then there's no metagaming involved.

Also, coming up with new ideas not common to the assumed society should not be labeled as metagaming is the PC is reasonably inteligent.

Getting to the case of the wind walker, the PC I was playing had faced one before, also associated with a broad range of knowledgeable, high-level characters. Thus he (I) should have remembered how to attack the critter. It was a case player NUMBRAINING, NOT A HINT OF METAGAMING THERE :D

Cheers,
GAry



Source? Well, that would be this forum.

Given that OD&D and AD&D is associated with so-called "Skilled Play" which ... well, it required metagaming, I don't think that's an accurate summary of the issue. As with most things, it's complicated. Which is why a conversation about metagaming qua metagaming isn't helpful.
 

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
I wonder which one of his players inspired this level of rage? I'm going to guess Robert Kuntz.

Well, given that Rob was a co-DM in the early days, I think it would have been difficult to keep the material away.

It's more an example of the typical Gygaxian bombast. The 1e DMG is one of the truly great works in RPGs... but it's also full of contradictory rules, and sometimes plain old bad advice.

If you let Gygax write long enough, he is likely to provide you three compelling, and completely antithetical, opinions about the same topic.
 

James Gasik

Legend
Supporter
I guess that makes sense, the 1e DMG is basically the D&D Bible. I still use mine to this day, as there are TONS of tools and ideas in there that modern books cut out in favor of flashy full page digital art.

I'm sure a good percentage of Gary's rhetoric was hyperbole, but, alas, many DM's seemed to take it as gospel...
 

Plus let's be honest. If you fight a werewolf without silver or a mummy without fire, what the heck are you supposed to do? Die?*

*Ok, granted, you could flee, but a werewolf can probably catch you, and, depending on the edition, fleeing is a lot harder than it sounds. in AD&D you open yourself up to a free hit, in 3.x the Run action lowers defenses -and- provokes, and the same might be true for players taking the Dash action in 5e. This is why in 3e I usually kept an Obscuring Mist or similar spell prepared.

Right. I think it's dull and silly to ask or expect players not to use their knowledge in those situations. The issue in those cases is the decision to use those monsters. If I use trolls in my game, it's about "can the PCs beat these trolls" not "can the players pretend to not know that fire will help them beat the trolls". As a GM, I'm not focusing on the deployment of fire as problematic in any way. The only way a scenario where there's a monster with an unknown weakness can be interesting is that first time, when no one actually knows the weakness. After that, you need to find other ways to make the monster interesting.

Metagaming is always present. It's not avoidable. What I think is interesting is how it affects play, and what is considered acceptable or unacceptable to individuals and why.
 

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
I guess that makes sense, the 1e DMG is basically the D&D Bible. I still use mine to this day, as there are TONS of tools and ideas in there that modern books cut out in favor of flashy full page digital art.

I'm sure a good percentage of Gary's rhetoric was hyperbole, but, alas, many DM's seemed to take it as gospel...

Well, no one is infallible.

What helps, for me, is to try and remember the context of the DMG. In other words, for reasons (both the Arneson litigation, and because TSR/Gary was hellbent on trying to keep other D&D-like systems from competing with D&D), Gygax was wildly veering between both his a priori belief that rules were guidelines, games were a fun hobby, and people would be experimenting and having fun with the game, and his new, pecuniary belief that AD&D was a closed system, and people should pay the official arbiters of D&D money to enjoy the official product.

If you read it in that light, everything starts to make more sense. IMO.
 

Haiku Elvis

Adventurer
If I tell the players "two trolls come out of the cave and attack you" relying on player knowledge of what a troll is to avoid me having to describe them from scratch, I can't really complain when they use the same knowledge to defeat them.
(although I always usually when I'm not feeling lazy describe the creatures players come across not name them)
 

pemerton

Legend
I think there’s an interesting juxtaposition among things that normally get classified as metagaming.

There’s the classic example of players whose characters have never encountered trolls before deploying fire immediately upon finding one. This is very often viewed in a negative light. Many GMs will restrict such action or at the very least frown upon it.

<snip>

Is the first frowned upon because it originates with the players? Or that it contradicts what the GM wants to see? Or is there something else going on?
I've got a strong view on this particular thing (monster weaknesses). It seems to be much the same as yours!

I think it's dull and silly to ask or expect players not to use their knowledge in those situations. The issue in those cases is the decision to use those monsters. If I use trolls in my game, it's about "can the PCs beat these trolls" not "can the players pretend to not know that fire will help them beat the trolls". As a GM, I'm not focusing on the deployment of fire as problematic in any way. The only way a scenario where there's a monster with an unknown weakness can be interesting is that first time, when no one actually knows the weakness. After that, you need to find other ways to make the monster interesting.
As you say here, it's about the "hidden information" aspect of the game.

What's curious to me is how a gameplay thing - hidden information - got turned into a "play your character" thing. Like much of the current RPG culture, probably in the mid 80s? Of course if players play their PCs as not knowing how to kill trolls, then their PCs will die to those trolls unless the GM pulls punches. So this change in expectations of players also correlates to a change in expectations about how GMs do their thing.
 

James Gasik

Legend
Supporter
I was once inspired by a Dungeon adventure where it went to great lengths to hide what the monster the players fighting even was, taking cues from the original Alien. I did something similar- the party was forced to travel overland during inclement weather- it was stormy and misty. They came a merchant wagon, stuck in the mud, and the signs of a massacre. I described strange clawed tracks, but not having a ranger, they didn't know what it was, and soon lost the trail in the forest.

I kept using hit and run attacks against the party, as something green and fast moving would come out of the woods, attack a player, and then dash back into them. Or when a player on watch went to investigate some noise, they got attacked in the dim light.

Eventually the players were looking annoyed and definitely weren't having fun, so I let them get a good look at the thing. It was a troll, of course. They then found it's lair, and turned it into so much flaming goo.

That was the moment when I realized denying players information without good reason was a jerk move. As the DM, I am the one who describes the game world to them. If I don't mention something, they don't know it's there. If I vaguely describe an enemy, they don't know what to expect.

This can turn an encounter they can defeat easily into a nightmare. I can always use stronger or more monsters when designing encounters. It's trivial for me, as a DM, to trample all over the party. So making a lesser threat more deadly by depriving them of information just feels cheap to me.

Sure, it builds tension, and -can- lead to a fun experience. But "gotcha" monsters are the gaming equivalent to a jump scare to me. There has to be a better way to make encounters more memorable than this.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
You're far more forgiving on any of this than I am.
By definition, it's not. But it shows that there are levels of metagaming. The first level is "metagaming as required to keep the game flowing". This includes players knowing what their actual modifiers are, knowing monster AC's, and not turning a troll encounter into a TPK because no one knows how to kill a troll. This kind of metagaming is rarely bad.
This kind of metagaming is sometimes very bad. The PCs don't know a monster's AC (or not until they've tried hitting it several times, anyway) and so neither should the players. Information about the opposition is DM-side stuff. If a troll encounter turns into a TPK because no-one knows how to kill a troll (while simultaneously being either too stubborn or too unwise to run away) then so be it: let 'em die.

Metagaming required to keep the game flowing does indeed include players knowing their modifiers; also their current hit point totals and spells remaining, and pretty much anything else on the character sheet. Metagaming required to get someone's new PC into the game is another example where keeping the game flowing overrides metagame concerns.
The second level I'd call "incidental metagaming". This is when a player acts like their character lives in the game world, and will spout out facts that are known by many, even if it was never established that the character knows these things. Saying you know about the War Wizards of Cormyr, Bladesingers, or Hobgoblins, for example. This kind of metagaming is not often bad.
Incidental metagaming, which I read to mean metagaming by accident, is fine if it only happens once per player. After that, and a warning to cease, it becomes intentional; which leads to...
The third level is "restricted metagaming": here, the player is taking knowledge that is only known to a privileged few and using it or acting upon it. Knowing that the phylactery of a lich is his massive golden throne, or that the Princess is secretly a Silver Dragon. This kind of metagaming is often bad.
...this; which is close-enough-to-never good to just say never and leave it at that.

This type of metagaming also includes offering suggestions to the player of a PC whose situation your own PC knows nothing about. An example is a player telling the player of a PC who has scouted ahead alone how to deal with some unexpected threat that the telling player's PC would have no way to know about. Corollary is when the scout fails to return and the PCs of the other players, having seen at the table what became of said scout, somehow know exactly what happened and how to deal with it.
And finally, we have "terminal metagaming". This is where you've read the adventure or the DM's notes, or took something the DM told you in confidence and bring it into game. Once, my roommate used my computer when I was at work, and saw a lot of word docs on my desktop. Curious, he read them, and they were stories about my campaign's lore.

When he mentioned them to the other players, I was not happy. Terminal metagaming is almost always bad, but it doesn't have to be- it's annoying, and a breach of trust, to be sure, and there should be a discussion about it. Where it crosses the line is when the player uses this information to their benefit, like knowing to search a certain area to find a magical intelligent sunblade (I'm sure some of you know what adventure I'm referring to).
This goes beyond metagaming into outright cheating, and yes: "terminal" is a good term for it. :)
 
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Lanefan

Victoria Rules
I was once inspired by a Dungeon adventure where it went to great lengths to hide what the monster the players fighting even was, taking cues from the original Alien. I did something similar- the party was forced to travel overland during inclement weather- it was stormy and misty. They came a merchant wagon, stuck in the mud, and the signs of a massacre. I described strange clawed tracks, but not having a ranger, they didn't know what it was, and soon lost the trail in the forest.

I kept using hit and run attacks against the party, as something green and fast moving would come out of the woods, attack a player, and then dash back into them. Or when a player on watch went to investigate some noise, they got attacked in the dim light.
So far, this is brilliant!
Eventually the players were looking annoyed and definitely weren't having fun,
Well, of course - that's the point! The players here are merely reflecting their PCs' annoyance; and obviously the PCs - as with anyone caught in a horror-movie-trope scenario - aren't going to be having much fun.

Makes it all the more satisfying for them when they do eventually kill it.
so I let them get a good look at the thing. It was a troll, of course. They then found it's lair, and turned it into so much flaming goo.

That was the moment when I realized denying players information without good reason was a jerk move. As the DM, I am the one who describes the game world to them. If I don't mention something, they don't know it's there. If I vaguely describe an enemy, they don't know what to expect.
And from what I can tell by your write-up above, you did a great job of setting the atmosphere (a dim and perhaps spooky forest) and describing what the PCs saw - a big fast-moving green thing that now and then did a run-and-slash through the party or picked off any stragglers. The PCs initially have no idea what this thing is and therefore neither should the players; they might be able to guess (rightly or wrongly) but that's it until they find a way to get a good look at it; meaning you had good reason to deny the information.
This can turn an encounter they can defeat easily into a nightmare.
Again, that's the point - you're having the monster act intelligently and make itself into much more of a threat* than on paper it otherwise might be. This sort of thing is what can keep otherwise-weak monsters viable as opponents as PCs get higher in level and power.

* - or perceived threat - perception is everything in horror-themed scenes like this.
 

James Gasik

Legend
Supporter
It still bugs me when other DM's do things like this and don't realize that it amounts to "bolts from the blue"- getting wrecked for no other reason than the DM wants you to take damage at this time. It may be a wrong belief, but I usually feel that there's always a correct decision to make in any situation that can lead to victory. Sure, the dice can quickly disprove this notion, but I think of myself as a tactical player. I look at the information available, and I make plans.

In a 4e game, we came across a clearing with some tall boulders in the center of it. No one saw anything out of the ordinary at first (our Ranger had amazing Perception), but then we noticed movement, and enemies appeared at the treeline.

I decided "hey, there's terrain, I'll use it to my advantage!" So rarely is there useful terrain in encounters!

So my Halfling Assassin used a power called "Ghost of the Rootops" (or something similar), which let me climb 30' without making a check. I went to climb up a boulder, and get told I just provoked an opportunity attack from a monster cleverly disguised as a boulder!

"And the Ranger didn't see that? I mean, you didn't even ask him to roll Perception!"

"Oh well, the monster says it cannot be detected as anything other than a rock until it moves" (at least, I think that's what the creature's stat block said, it's been awhile).

I had some choice words about it, as he ruled after taking the damage, I then fell prone at the base of this thing. The other players thought it was hilarious, of course, so I decided to let it go, but that still irks me to think about- it feels like Nelson from the Simpsons saying "haha!".

Maybe this is perfectly acceptable and I'm just a whiner, but I try not to do things like that when I DM- I have all kinds of other tricks that I feel are more legitimate to confound my players!
 

Piratecat

Sesquipedalian
I had some choice words about it, as he ruled after taking the damage, I then fell prone at the base of this thing. The other players thought it was hilarious, of course, so I decided to let it go, but that still irks me to think about- it feels like Nelson from the Simpsons saying "haha!".

Maybe this is perfectly acceptable and I'm just a whiner, but I try not to do things like that when I DM- I have all kinds of other tricks that I feel are more legitimate to confound my players!
Part of the problem here is one of perceived (or assumed) competence. If you're playing someone who's good at their job, and they do their job well, you get justifiably annoyed at a ruling that makes you feel like a buffoon. Starting PCs in D&D are actually pretty bad at their jobs -- but mid- and high-level adventures are competent AF, and I think it is smart for the GM to treat them that way when giving them the benefit of the doubt.

If the GM is REALLY EXCITED to surprise the PC, one way around the hard feelings is for the GM to ask the player "normally you can spot monsters, but you absolutely couldn't in this case. Tell me, why was that?" Then let the player come up with the reason why they were tricked. I find it's more satisfying (and more heroic) to handle it that way.
 

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