Welcome to the third installment of Everyman Gaming’s GM’s Guide articles. In this GM’s Guide, we’ll be talking about the concept of the Metagame.
“Metagaming” is likely a term that you have all heard before, but what, exactly does it mean? GMs and players alike often use the term “metagaming” as something bad. Specifically, the tern is used when players are thinking about the game rather than the story. But is this a bad thing? Today we’re going look at the definition of metagame and talk about when metagaming is a good thing and when it is a bad thing.
Definition of Metagame
So, what is the metagame? Well, if we deconstruct the word into its Latin roots, here’s what we get:
- Meta- (prefix): Denoting something of a higher or second-order kind.
- Game (Noun): A form of play or sport, especially a competitive one played according to rules and decided by skill, strength, or luck.
Combining these two definitions gives us a very appropriate definition for Metagame that I am going to swipe from Urban Dictionary:
- Metagame: Any aspect of strategy that involves thinking about what your opponent is thinking you are thinking.
I’m willing to bet that this isn’t how 90% of the Pathfinder community use the term, “Metagaming.” When I was a Yu-Gi-Oh! player way back in the land of middle school or a Magic: The Gathering player in high school (or a Hearthstone player today), Metagaming is a term that I heard frequently, and it was often used in this context. In competitive card games such as these, Metagaming meant that I knew what strategy was most popular, so I included a few cards in my own deck that helped to disrupt that strategy. By definition, you cannot have a metagame unless you are playing competitively, and that is the problem with accusing someone of metagaming.
The Problem with Metagaming in Pathfinder
I’m willing to bet that many of my readers are going to assume that I’m going to start talking about how “metagaming breaks immersion!” or how “metagaming makes mental ability scores meaningless!” Those are two complaints that I see all the time. Specifically, people in roleplaying games use the term Metagaming to describe when a player (or the GM) uses his knowledge about how the game is played to influence how his character acts. People see this as a problem because it doesn’t seem fair when your Intelligence 8 Barbarian is able to identify an obscure demonic monster and combat it accordingly because the player knows how to fight it.
But what if the real problem is actually the use of the term “metagaming?”
We’ve talked before about how the GM’s job is to foster storytelling and create a fun atmosphere to play in, not to go on a PC-slaying rampage in one of my previous articles. (I believe it was ‘GMing and Liking It.’) I understand the temptation to go gung-ho against a play who might be acting out of character, but let’s look at the definition of Metagaming again. “Any aspect of strategy that involves thinking about what your opponent is thinking you are thinking.” This means that metagaming is literally a strategy that involves thinking about what your opponent (in this case, the GM) is thinking that you are thinking.
But when a player uses his information about a Vrock to combat it affectively, is he really thinking about what you, as the GM, are thinking? No. He’s thinking about what he knows about a particular monster and planning accordingly. A better example of metagaming in Pathfinder would be reading an action to strike the next thing that passes through a door because you know that the enemy has a breath attack and would want to move through said door in order to utilize it to maximum efficiency. Even though you are anticipating the GM’s actions in this scenario, most GMs wouldn’t accuse you of metagaming in this situation: they would applaud you for your effective tactics.
So we applaud what is literally metagaming and scorn something that isn’t metagaming, but call it metagaming anyway. Why?
The problem with metagaming in Pathfinder is that, at its core, Pathfinder isn’t a competitive game. Your job as the GM isn’t to attempt to crush your PCs; it is to provide them with problems that they have to overcome. Regardless of whether those problems are monsters or skill challenges. So saying that getting into an enemy’s head and trying to predict what he’s going to do is a bad thing just feels off. You want your players to get immersed like that, after all.
So instead of calling the situation of the Intelligence 8 barbarian who knows all about vrocks metagaming, I’m going to call it insubstantial knowledge: it is knowledge with no character background or action to back it up, after all
Solving Insubstantial Knowledge Issues
So, how do we fix THIS problem of insubstantial knowledge issues? Well, its pretty simple, actually. Anecdotes. Whenever a player attempts to act on knowledge he shouldn’t have, ask him, “How does your character know this?” Don’t ask in an accusing manner and don’t accuse him of doing something wrong. Ask your player for a quick story that explains how he would know this. For example, what if your barbarian player responded with something like this:
“My character is from one of the Mammoth Lord tribes that borders the Worldwound. His village has had to deal with demonic attacks for generations and he knows a lot about fighting vrocks as a result.”
So now instead of accusing your player of playing the game incorrectly, you just challenged him into providing more information about his character. If he says, “I don’t know how my character would know that,” then he’d have to play and act on that, certainly, but in this way you can get even your most uninterested player to think more about who his character is as a person. The only challenged to this strategy is remembering your player’s backgrounds to keep an ear open for contradictions, but as GM you’re already doing that anyway. Right? 😉
And that’s my thoughts on metagaming in the Pathfinder Roleplaying. What do you think? Do you agree with my stance on metagaming or disagree with it? Do you think my strategy for dealing with insubstantial knowledge is a good one or would you do something differently? How do you handle insubstantial knowledge at your table? Leave your answers, questions, and comments below and look forward to more thoughts from my Gibbering Mouth next week!
Alexander “Alex” Augunas has been playing roleplaying games since 2007, which isn’t nearly as long over 90% of his colleagues. Affectionately called a “budding game designer” by his partner at Radiance House, Alexander is the author of the Pact Magic Unbound series (Radiance House) and a handful of other Third-Party Products. Before founding the Everyman Gaming blog, Alexander gained notoriety for writing the GM’s Guide to Challenging Encounters, which remains accessible to this day. His favorite color is blue, his favorite Pathfinder Race/Class combination is kitsune tactician, and this is the first time he’s mentioned a 3PP class in his bio that he didn’t personally write (I think). Congratulations, Dreamscarred Press!