Best of the Blog: When Metagaming is a Problem (And When It’s Not)

But ha, that’s where you’re wrong, Cthulhu! He’s no narrator…he’s a Dungeon Master! You may be able to break the Fourth Wall, but you’ll never be able to withstand the might of an abusive Dungeon Master bent on revenge! By the way, make one hundred constitutions saving throws. You’ll regret breaking the game…if you live.

But despite the name, “metagaming” has to do with stories in general and not just with games. (I don’t know of many other games besides D&D that include metagaming, except possibly Clue) Metagaming often doesn’t quite happen the way Cthulhu imagines it (he’s merely breaking the fourth wall) but it’s a problem in storytelling nonetheless.

So what is metagaming? Metagaming is the unexplained knowledge of some characters being in some characters’ heads. In real life, you wouldn’t know that the underside of your car’s bumper had been scratched with “WE’RE COMING TO GET YOU” unless you found out or somebody told you, both of which are extremely unlikely. Hence, if that’s what’s bugging you on the way to work, your knowledge of the situation needs to be explained.

But that’s not really metagaming, because it’s missing the “meta” part. Metagaming is more like one of the members of your party noticed that one of the werewolves that they fought in the woods was significantly smaller and weaker, possibly denoting that its human form was a female. However, the DM tells that guy and that guy alone these details, so it’s clear that that’s the only person who knows. However, since you’re already sitting at the same table, everyone knows, but their characters do not. But if one of the other players (in character) deduces that one of the werewolves has to be the abbess who’s married to the blacksmith since one of them could be female, he’s metagaming.

Examples of this are usually circumstantial, but it comes up a lot in stories where intelligence is a key factor in the story. That means controlling the flow of information and giving it to certain people is something you need to keep track of. Depending on how important the information is in your story and how well you can “assume” that the information jumped from one person to another, metagaming can really wreck your story.

Since I’m still not satisfied with the examples I’ve given, I’ll try my hand at a third: in the TV series Transformers Prime, the Autobots and the Decepticons are racing to uncover the location of the Omega Keys, powerful relics that when combined have the power to give life back to their home planet.

While it’s a great show and I could go really in-depth into it, I’m only going to mention this one detail: throughout the duration of the hunt, Megatron has no idea what the Omega Keys are, only that he has to keep the Autobots from getting them. The Autobots, however, know that the Keys would be used to restore Cybertron. It would be really easy for the writers to just “assume” that Megatron knows what the Omega Keys’ purpose is, but if they did that would be metagaming.

You get the idea yet? Since I’ve basically given up (and I can’t tell whether I’m beating a dead horse or not), I’m going to paste in a quote from a Wikipedia article into this one to solidify my point:

“…metagaming often refers to having an in-game character act on knowledge that the player has access to but the character should not. For example, tricking Medusa to stare at a mirror when the character has never heard of Medusa and would not be aware of her petrifying stare.”

– Wikipedia entry on “Metagaming”

One of the things that annoys me in the movie Willow (don’t get me wrong, I really like the movie) is that everyone knows everyone’s name…despite never being told. This became especially awkward when Mad Martigan found himself in Sortia’s tent (the two are enemies by the way, if you haven’t watched the movie) and he actually addressed her by name. This happens first when he meets the halflings (I’m not even going to pretend that I remember what they’re supposed to be called) and you start picking up on it.

So yeah, metagaming is usually* to be avoided. I put an asterisk there because that’s not the whole story: a lot of things in a story are assumed, so metagaming is actually perfectly legal. However, readers can really get annoyed when one character ends up with information that they weren’t supposed to know.

I would encourage metagaming under one circumstance: that’s if readers can make the logical jump between two pieces of information. If the party gathers at a table to discuss the events of the day, the reader will assume they talked about the dissimilarities between the two werewolves if it comes up in the conversation later, although it would be helpful to make that clear. However, in such cases, a little leeway as far as metagaming is concerned is allowed.

Good luck, and happy writing!

Be sure to check out my latest novel, Book 1 in the Praetors of Lost Magic Series, and our Publications page. Plus, I mean, it wouldn’t hurt to check out the Resources tab. It’s full of super helpful material and I promise it will help you out. Until then, writers!

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Published by Van Ghalta

A cold, dark, mysterious character who purposefully wrote a story so that he could fit into it...A story where he himself WRITES stories, practices martial arts, blogs, plays airsoft, collects MTG trading cards, plays outdated video games, and writes weird, third-person bios for himself...

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