Tuesday, February 20, 2018

GM 101: Don't Sweat the Meta (too much)

Artist: Jim Holloway (Dragon #88)
So even after 40 years in gaming, I made a huge mistake in DMing last week’s session.

You see, I have this blind spot when it comes to metagaming.

I like the world to be mysterious. I want the characters (and therefore the players) to know only what they should know in the game. I want the mechanics to fade into the background as much as possible, so the “reality” of the situation is pure from a story perspective.

But sometimes I let that desire to have a metagame-free session get in the way of the what's best at the table.

What is the “metagame”? 

For those of you who may be new game masters, metagaming is any time a player is using his own knowledge about the game (usually mechanics, but also out-of-character story knowledge) to affect the character’s actions in the game.

As an example, anyone who has played the game more than a few times will know that Trolls regenerate hit points during combat. They probably also know using fire or acid will stop the regeneration and kill a Troll permanently. However, it may be that their PC, who is new to the life of adventuring, might not know that Trolls have this fire and acid vulnerability. When the players suddenly switch tactics to include fire and acid in their encounter with Trolls, using the knowledge is called metagaming.

Alternatively, from a story perspective, you may be running a game in a published setting. Perhaps you decide to use an NPC that is actually a dragon masquerading as a noble. One of the players who is familiar with the setting blurts out “Hey, that dude is a dragon!” at which point you probably want to strangle the player since their character would not know that, and it was an important plot reveal for later.

In both cases, the player is using knowledge that their character might not know in order to alters the events in the game.

Is metagaming bad?

It depends on the situation. In the Troll scenario, one just had to realize that the game has been around for nearly 45 years, so players are likely to know common monster tropes. Think of these bits of default character knowledge as being part of the fairy tales or children's rhymes within the setting's culture -- “Fight a Troll? Make him stop, drop, and roll!”

Artist: David Trampier
Knowledge about particular monsters is just going to be out there. The players are bound to act upon it, but that's not bad. It is just the nature of the game rules. Some players will have larger amounts of system mastery than others. If they ask to make a Nature check first to try to stay in character, that’s all the better, but don't expect them to not act upon meta-information about monsters. Conversely, that doesn’t mean you have to allow them page through the Monster Manual while sitting at the table.

As the GM, you can always turn some of that meta-knowledge on its ear. Perhaps because of the swampy environment, a Troll’s slimy, algae-coated hide actually offers some protection from fire. Or perhaps the Troll is a earth-based elemental life form, more like a Galeb Duhr. Perhaps instead, a Troll has resistance to fire in your game for these reasons, and only acid prevents the regeneration. Just change the “reality” of the Monster Manual. It’s your game. It's your setting. Those creatures may be different in your world. You might even re-capture some of the mystique, especially if you incorporate these differences into the lore of your game world.

As for story knowledge, this is a bit less of grey area, but a published setting is going to have people with knowledge of the canon. Ideally, a player who knows a big setting-based spoiler would not reveal that knowledge to the rest of the players. A good player should take you aside after the session and ask "Is there any way my character knows that NPC is really a dragon?” An invaluable player would play along with the GM, holding the knowledge secret, acting as their character would, and not spoiling a big reveal for the rest of the group… but don’t necessarily count on that.

As a GM, this is another reason you will want to tweak the featurtes of the setting. Well-known NPCs should be renamed, reskinned, regendered, or whatever else it takes to make them different from the published materials. If you are aware a player has deep setting knowledge, talk to them outside of the group and ask that they not reveal any lore-related information their character would not know, but also make changes to throw them off the trail.

Lastly, a player who actively reads the current adventure module in order to act on that knowledge in-game in order to “win” at D&D is just being a d!ck. Part of the social contract includes not spoiling the fun for the other players. You don’t tell your friends the big reveal of a movie before they see it. Definitely don’t do that for their adventures. As the GM, that player probably needs to be kicked to the curb (or a stern warning, at the very least).

Your Character Wouldn't Know That

There are other times in the game when a player announces an action for their character that comes not from setting or rules knowledge, but from out-of-character information gleaned just sitting around the table, overhearing what all of the other characters are experiencing. Let's say one or two of the party members is separated from the rest of the party and gets jumped in an alley. Another character wouldn't race to their defense, because they don't know there is an ambush happening. They have no way of knowing the other character is in trouble. They don't have "Spidey-sense".

Sometimes, as a GM, you have to say, "Your character wouldn't know that." However, depending upon the circumstances, you should consider if the character might have any knowledge in order to act on it. You don't want to remove player agency if may be an in-game reason the player might take a particular action. Examples in-game may not always be as clear-cut as the example noted here.

The Fog of War

So what was my big gaffe? My players were about to assault a major stronghold and the sorcerer gave the rogue some invisibility to scout the different approaches. I thought it might be fun to take the rogue’s player aside, let him scout around, and tell him what he sees. He would then have to relate what I told him, in his own words, to the rest of the players introducing a bit of the “telephone tree” phenomena. Seems like a fun idea in theory, right? It wasn’t.
  1. It took way too long. This part wasn’t a problem with metagaming so much as it was a problem with giving the spotlight to one player for too long of a period. I had to convey a lot of information while the other players sat and waited in the other room. It completely deflated the tension and led to a lot of boredom while a scene played out for one person.

  2. The “telephone tree” inaccuracies didn’t enhance the fun. Describing visual imagery is tricky. One could describe a scene and every player might see it differently in their own mind. This, of course, gets amplified with the telephone tree game. I ended up having to correct or clarify several things when the player came back to the group because he misconstrued what I was telling him, or made other descriptive mistakes that his character would not have in game.
The whole scene would have gone much better if I had just described to him what he sees with the other players at the table. They would not be able to guide him or ask follow-up questions (because their character was not there), but it would have kept them engaged and the tension high, especially given that they could not assist or offer advice during the scene. I was so focussed on the idea of not letting the players get the meta-knowledge of the scouting mission, that it really harmed what otherwise would have been a good game session.

Final Thoughts

My advice boils down to this:  You want to make a world mysterious in which a large part of the characters’ exploration leads to not only in-game character knowledge, but also player surprise and discovery. Everyone loves to uncover a plot twist, or a secret reveal resulting from investigation and in-game clues. No one wants to have the fun spoiled by a Know-It-All player.

On the other hand, the game is older than most of its player base. Mechanics expertise is out there and you can’t expect players to wall off that part of their mind.  As a GM, don’t worry too much about the players having some amount of metagame knowledge. It’s going to happen... a lot. Don’t get caught up trying to preserve mystery when doing so won’t necessarily enhance the fun at the table. As long as no one is actively trying to “cheat” by reading what they should not, a little metagame thinking on the players’ part won’t kill the game.

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