There’s a fairly widespread attitude among gamers that can be summed up like this: “Metagaming = Bad.”

This should really be “Some kinds of metagaming = Bad, for some gaming groups.” Or even better, “Many kinds of metagaming = awesome, for nearly any group.”

Why? Because there are at least two kinds of metagaming — the one that’s generally bad, and the one that’s nearly always a good thing.

This topic grew out of the comments on When an Adventure or Character is “In Check”. TT reader brcarl rightly pointed out that the idea of metagaming in constructive ways has been something of a trend in recent TT posts, and I thought this would be a good subject for its own post.

Bad Metagaming

When most GMs think of metagaming, this is what they’re thinking of: player knowledge being used in place of character knowledge in a way that negatively impacts the game.

For example: The party has split up: Merry and Pippin followed the right-hand path, while Frodo and Samwise went left. They’re now in two completely different areas.

  • GM: Merry and Pippin, when you round the next corner you’re ambushed by orcs. Roll for initiative.
  • Samwise’s Player: Frodo and I run back to help Merry and Pippin!
  • GM: You don’t know that they got attacked.
  • Samwise’s Player: I…uh…had a hunch. I can tell when my friends are in danger. We start running back.

In 99% of games, this kind of player behavior isn’t a good thing — and it gives other kinds of metagaming a bad name, tarnishing them by association.

Good Metagaming

In general, good metagaming is any kind of meta-level, out-of-character discussion that makes the game more fun for the whole group. This kind of metagaming usually doesn’t just happen on its own, either — it requires an active, mature effort on the part of both the players and the GM.

That’s partly because it flies in the face of the “Metagaming = Bad” generalization, and partly due to the fact that as play styles go, using metagaming constructively isn’t all that common (at least in my experience).

There are lots of ways to use constructive metagaming — here are four examples that illustrate a few general types of good metagaming:

Players telling the GM about their plans. Unless you have a good reason to maintain an adversarial relationship with your players, encouraging them to spell things out gives you, the GM, a chance to consider the outcome of their plans from a very constructive standpoint: “How can I make what happens more fun?” There are lots of good ways to be surprised as a GM, but this isn’t one of them.

Making sure your players understand their options. “If you scale the wall, the rain will give you a -4 penalty to your roll. If you can land a grappling hook up there, though, it’ll only be -1 with the rope.” Describing things in detail is part of being a GM, but what about sharing some of the mechanics behind those details? This is doubly true when a PC’s life is on the line, but it’s good advice in other circumstances as well.

Guys, I’m not having any fun. If you’re not having fun during a session, sometimes it’s best to bring that up. Everyone’s there for the same reason (to have fun), and as long as you aren’t being a dick about it your friends will listen to what’s bothering you. After a few minutes of discussion, you’ll probably be able to resolve things and move in a slightly different direction — one that means you get to have fun as well.

Play to the rest of the party’s character concepts. Even if your character doesn’t know that another PC hates spiders (perhaps because the game has just begun), there’s a good chance you, the player, do know that. Why let a good background flag go to waste? Find a way to work spiders into the game, and everyone wins.

Not all of these examples will work for your group — heck, you might not like any of them. But this list is just scratching the surface: there are tons of ways to use metagaming to improve your group’s overall experience at the gaming table.

That’s how I come at this topic — what are your thoughts? Do you agree with the premise? If you disagree, why? Are there other archetypal examples of constructive metagaming?