Metagame Management 101

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!

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10 thoughts on “Metagame Management 101

  1. I don’t know, I disagree with the definition of the metagame term as defined here. Wikipedia gives a great definition as: Metagaming is any strategy, action or method used in a game which transcends a prescribed ruleset, uses external factors to affect the game, or goes beyond the supposed limits or environment set by the game.

    The above definition is how I see it being used in more than just Pathfinder. It’s how it’s being used in MOBA games like League of Legends, or FPS games like Call of Halofield.

    As for how I handle it? I throw my players off. Creature normally has fireball as a SLA? Now he’s got Lightning Bolt, or Stinking Cloud. Or I change up the feats and stuff.

    It doesn’t bother if that 8 Int barbarian invested his skills in Knowledge (planes) and he identifies it, but if the character didn’t actually identify the creature and still operates using the metagame (or player knowledge) then I will change the creature’s feats, spells, SLA or special abilities on the fly. Just because the bestiary shows a ‘stock’ variety, doesn’t mean that it’s the ‘only’ kind to exist.

    Afterwards, I’ll talk with the player about metagaming. If he keeps using his player knowledge, I’ll ask the group if they want him to stay in. If they say yes, then I just go ahead and start swapping stuff on everything or outright changing things. Like a bloody skeleton normally can only be killed with positive energy, in the presence of a bless spell, or by sprinkling holy water on it’s remains. I might just say that the bones have to be buried in consecrated earth, or hallow’d earth or something to that effect.

    • But you see, the problem with your logic is that you are thinking of Pathfinder as a combat simulator. If you want to talk about using outside knowledge to help you win in combat, sure. But are you REALLY metagaming in a Roleplaying Game if you yell out to your party wizard, “My grandma told me in a story once that demons summon more of their kin! Watch out for it!” without making a Knowledge check? As I say in the article, I don’t think so. Because if the other players know that their comrade has no ranks in Knowledge skills and is therefore not an expert in the field, they should react according to how said barbarian presents the advice.

      Also consider this: by your definition, are your players metagaming if they reference things that they’ve seen in prior combats without making Knowledge checks? (Remember last time we fought that ooze? He did Constitution damage to us!) If not, then why can’t the party Fighter spin a story about how his father is a Worldwound survivor and told him about some of the horrors out in the field? That would still be part of the character’s “memory,” but the only difference is that it never happened while the GM was running the game. But is that restriction fair to the character?

      Your definition of metagaming is appropriate for an MMO or a video game, but I do not think that it is appropriate for a roleplaying game, hence the point of this article.

      • The problem is, then I could play a character who dumps his Int down to nil and then just make up stories as to how I know all of the monsters in the bestiary. Maybe something as simple as, “Me Pappy was scholar for the Pathfinders and lectured on many tips and tricks for encounters during their missions for the Lodge.”

        With something like that, I can keep referencing ‘Me Pappy’ who was a noted scholar and expert on the fields of monsters, their techniques, weaknesses, strengths and abilities. Now I’ve got a go-to excuse for using my knowledge I’ve gained as a GM without actually having to put any ranks into knowledge skills, or even being all that intelligent.

        What it does is obviates the need for a whole selection of skills, and also invalidates a number of class features for other classes designed around bonuses to knowledge skills or identifying monsters. I mean, why does the Inquisitor need to add half his level to knowledge checks to identify monsters, if the player himself already knows what the monster is and can just make up a story without needing points in the skill itself?

      • Counter Point: Allowing players to use their own knowledge of the game with proper roleplaying does not diminish the usefulness of the Knowledge skill: you still use that skill for answering questions about your field. All it does is reduce dependency on Knowledges in combat, which is a good think because Knowledge doesn’t represent your intelligence or your ability to recall information: it references things that you study. A character with one rank in Knowledge (arcana) did not earn that skill rank from sitting down and listening to his grand pappy tell stories. He earned it by learning about magic. Because Knowledge skills are trained skills, the game actually does not have a good way to represent information that you’ve picked up in passing. “I’ve heard a rumor that red dragons are immune to fire,” is not something that the Knowledge skill covers.

        As I mentioned before, in-character deductive reasoning is a wonderful roleplaying thing. This also goes back to the fact that 90% of the anti-Alex opinion on this topic essentially boils down to, “I want my players to waste resources / time on this enemy’s special defenses,” which is a competitive GM tactic. As we’ve mentioned before, competitiveness between players / the GM is not good for fostering a strong player table. Doing stuff like that doesn’t help immerse players in your game world; it cuts down on their problem-solving capabilities and makes them feel like the GM is out to get them. (We’ll be talking about that player reaction in a few weeks.)

      • Not sure if this will work (the comments section on this site is extremely limited)

        Actually, Pathfinder has a great method of representing folk tales and legends about monsters like that via the Traits system.

        It’s be something like…

        You spent many hours listening to your grandmother as she recounted tales of adventure from her youth. You have gained a wealth of knowledge from these tales that wouldn’t normally be available to you.

        Benefit: You gain a +2 bonus to any two knowledge skills. One of these skills (your choice) becomes a class skill for you.

        As it stands, identifying aspects of a monster is still best represented via the knowledge system. Allowing characters to bypass that by using backstory is, essentially, giving them leeway to game the system. What you are doing is rewarding people who read the books by allowing them to assign skill points into other places than Knowledge skills and still gain the benefit of identiying the creature. People who haven’t read the bestiaries, however, still have to put ranks into the Knowledge skills to achieve the same benefit.

        If anything, it ‘encourages’ people to metagame by reading the bestiaries to know the specific weaknesses or defenses of creatures. This is, in my opinion, a bad thing as it makes it even more difficult for my job as a GM to craft interesting battles. When the whole table has started devouring the bestiaries to memorize things that they can just ‘fluff’ their way into knowing, then it means I have to go forth and start modifying every creature in the bestiary, simply so they don’t know what they’re going up against.

        You said, “This also goes back to the fact that 90% of the anti-Alex opinion on this topic essentially boils down to, “I want my players to waste resources / time on this enemy’s special defenses,” which is a competitive GM tactic. ”

        I’m not sure if this directed at me or not, but I’m not ‘anti-Alex’ at all, I just disagree on this article. I’m not being a competitive GM by making the players invest their skill points into Knowledge skills to identify creatures. If the players haven’t invested any ranks in knowledge, then they’re going to miss out a lot more than just the properties of creatures, as the knowledge skills govern more than that. Having access to effective knowledge skills is almost as important as having a good Perception in this game. If you can’t identify stuff (magic items, weird magical effects, portals, realms, monsters, enchantments, curses etc.) then you’re making the game a lot harder than it is if the characters had invested.

        I will go so far to say that if my player had come up with a background involving something like living near the Worldwound, but didn’t have any Worldwound specific traits, I’d probably grant him the benefit of a homebrew trait of somesort that gives him a bonus to identifying monsters or effects related to the Abyss or the Worldwound, and even allow them to make such checks untrained. But I would not just let them make up a line about listening to Grandma’s stories as an excuse to bypass investing knowledge skills like this article seems to be recommending.

  2. As an aside, sometimes I really regret being a GM because it’s hard to not metagame from time to time. There have been times I’ve had to intentionally shoot fireballs at a red dragon because we all biffed our knowledge checks and had to learn the hard way it was immune to fire.

    • See, this is one of the reasons why metagaming is a good thing. I’m sorry, but if the giant draconic monstrosity is breathing FIRE down upon the common folk, then simple logic would be enough to say, “Hey, I bet that thing isn’t vulnerable to fire.” You don’t need to be an Intelligence 16 wizard to figure that one out. In fact, I’d probably argue that any creature of humanoid Intelligence could make that assumption. An equally valid bit of logic would be to say, “Hey, since it breathes fire, let’s try cold magic!” Guess what? Red dragons aren’t especially vulnerable to cold damage, so logic doesn’t work that time.

      Now, if you want real, codified game statistics, then yes. Knowledge checks all the way. But simple logic and information based on rumors you might have heard? Yeah, that’s fine and more than anything, its good roleplaying. A barbarian might say, “I’ve heard dragons are resistant to many types of spells. Grandma told me once in a story.” The barbarian doesn’t need ranks in Knowledge to remember that story, and it adds extra flavor to the character if he chimes in with bits like that. Remember, the Knowledge skill doesn’t represent what you know, it represents what you know so well to the point that you are an expert on the topic.

      • Well, in our situation, the dragon didn’t lead off with fire attacks. I knew it was a red dragon, and we all knew he was immune to fire, but none of the characters had encountered a dragon at the time. So for us, we couldn’t fall back on useful deductions like that. After the second fireball hit, the GM allowed us to deduce that fire had no effect on it and I was able to switch over to Coldfire Balls (Admixture Wizard).

        I have no issue with people using prior encounters to fuel decisions on future encounters as those all make sense. But if someone wants to just make up stories about how ‘Grandma told me this’ then it opens up room for them to justify the character knowing anything without needing to make knowledge checks.

        I guess it comes down to how broad a subject wants to be and how much you want that character to recall. Allowing a character to recall knowledge it’s grandma told him, honestly, should be tied into knowledge checks. Otherwise, someone like a Wizard could simply claim that, since he was taught magic and had access to a huge library as collected by an Arcane University of sorts, he’s read extensively on all the monsters of the world and doesn’t need to make knowledge checks any more.

        Wheres the difference between someone saying, “My grandmother told me stories when I was a child 15 years ago” and “I was raised in a library and I read a book on ‘Demonology’ so I know all about demons?”

  3. When metagaming hurts my game is when a player says “they wouldn’t put us against a monster we couldn’t beat” or “the GM wouldn’t have drawn that wall so close to the edge of the mat if there was a secret door there.” That’s what I mean when I talk negatively about metamaging: thinking about the game as a game. So I don’t think your breath weapon example is what I would call metagaming because both the character and the player have to deal with the creature’s breath weapon, and how far and at what angles the character can stand safely. I prefer when there’s a reason the character knows to employ that tactic, but I use enough monsters that my players aren’t super familiar with that I can hand-waive the times there character knows more about a Bestiary 1 creature than they potentially should.

    You’re right that the definition you presented doesn’t apply to Pathfinder because that definition hinges on an opponent, but I hope there’s a follow up article that addresses the issues that can arise when a player thinks more from their perspective as a player and less from their perspective as a character.

  4. I’ve read quite a few of your blog posts, and though most have been interesting/informative, I strongly disagree with the points made in this one, and agree with most of what Darrel Vin Zant has said.
    Allowing players to use player knowledge freely results in the DM twisting the monsters around or creating new ones altogether; as Darrell stated
    “I throw my players off. Creature normally has fireball as a SLA? Now he’s got Lightning Bolt, or Stinking Cloud. Or I change up the feats and stuff”.

    Players are then free to metagame again
    “Is this the regular monster, or has he made a new one?”,
    but of course, they can wrap this up in RP talk to get around blatant metagaming
    “Pappy told me about this sort of monster, and it has these traits: ___, ___, ___, but he also told me that there are other variants of this monster, I just can’t remember what their traits are”.
    What this fosters is competitivness, not just between the DM and the players, but also between the players themselves, and as Darrel said, it will encourage people to read bestiaries and learn them.
    “Hey, if Gorm has a pappy that knows this stuff, I have an old nan that was an expert on .”
    In the end, it will result with a player-knowledge-fest where players are making up ancestors and friends just to give their metagaming information some cred, and so they can defend themselves from any accusations of metagaming. At which point do you say then “Ok, this is ridiculous, as it stands now, nobody in this party has any normal ancestors, every ancestor was an expert in at least 3 different subjects”? I can guarantee that when you say that, the person that metagamed the last will be absolutely fuming.
    Of course, if the player, not knowing that the adventure will hold e.g. ettins, says at the start of the campaign or adventure that his pappy was an ettin hunter (because this relates to him as a character), sure, go for it. But if you’re making up stuff just to validate your player knowledge, it’s not RP, it’s an avalanche of player knowledge channeled through RP.

    Ajagunas said:
    As I mentioned before, in-character deductive reasoning is a wonderful roleplaying thing.

    I don’t see any deductive skills in inventing an ancestor to channel your player knowledge. Sure, the dragon breathes fire, you can deduct that “Hey, guys, maybe we should attack it with something else other than fire? Chance he’s resistant to fire.”, but saying
    “My pappy, who as I stated when we started the campaign was a farmer and couldn’t read or write, did some research on dragons, and this type is immune to fire and vulnerable to cold”
    is just a way of using RP to provide player knowledge to others.
    And in that case, RP becomes a tool, not an end in itself.

    The cause of all of this is quite simple – players are afraid to fail, and when faced with two options
    a) play out your character as he/she is, and risk dying
    or
    b) use player knowledge to get around obstacles safely

    a great majority will opt for b).
    Why this is so, I don’t understand. In some cases (PFS) I do understand it, because the scenarios are designed to be very challenging combat-wise, and combat is the central element. If you don’t use player-knowledge, you reduce your chances of succeeding in an adventure whose sole goal is most often to challenge you in combat.
    However, for any other scenario, is this necessary? Are adventures nowadays so shallow that the only real way to challenge your players is to make them fight strong unknown monsters?
    Why not test their RP? Give them a monster that they all know about (players, not characters) and have them run around and fight this monster/these monsters, knowing fully well (as players) what the monster is about, but as characters they have no idea about it. When a person, who knows fully well that a red dragon is immune to fire, has his character blast a red dragon with a fireball and then almost die a second later, that’s RP.
    RP is not just being good/evil/lawful/shy/brash/drunk/sad/happy, it’s also accepting that your character has limitations. And when you accept those limitations, you’re free to start playing something that is not just a combat fest, and actually PLAY OUT a character of your own creation.

    Keep up the great work with the blog, but my advice would be to drop the anti-Alex opinion accusations, what you want is people discussing topics of your own choosing, not resorting to self-victimization when someone disagrees with something you stated. After all, everyone learns the most when discussing a subject with a person whose attitude towards it is not identical to their own.

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